As Oakland Unified struggles to balance its budget, it is planning for the second time in less than a decade to close some of its schools, an action that is among the most difficult and emotionally wrenching a district can take.

The district is talking about closing or consolidating up to two dozen of its current 86 school sites because there are not enough students to fill them, as the number of students attending district schools is expected to continue to drop.

The projected closures are part of a long-term district plan to stay fiscally solvent, after a fiscal crisis forced it to seek a bailout from the state Legislature to help cover its projected deficits over the next three years. A condition for receiving the state money — which could total as much as $34 million through 2023 — is that Oakland must create a plan for reducing the number of schools it operates so it can spend less on overhead costs and more on classroom instruction.

Through school closures, including consolidating smaller schools, the district expects to save nearly $5 million over the next four years, but only expects to save $81,000 next year.

To address the need for school closures, Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell is developing a “Community of Schools Citywide Plan” and a map showing the locations of all district and charter schools, along with which district schools could be closed, consolidated, moved, redesigned or expanded. The plan will look at expanding popular school programs in order to keep families attending district schools.

Although the district initially expected to provide a planning year before schools close or consolidate, Johnson-Trammell and her staff caught the community at Roots International Academy middle school off-guard in December when they announced the district wants to close the East Oakland school in June, while expanding the Coliseum Community Prep Academy, which is located on the same campus and serves students in grades 6-12.

Johnson-Trammell posted an online video message to the community Jan. 22 explaining the need for budget cuts, school closures and providing teachers with a fair contract, while maintaining the district’s fiscal solvency.

The school closure announcement has sparked strong backlash from Roots students, parents, staff and supporters throughout the district, including one group that rallied Jan. 24 outside the state building to demand that state elected officials step in to “stop pushing Oakland to close schools” and increase state funding for education. The group also plans to ask the school board to postpone its vote on school closures for 90 to 120 days, while it studies this and other issues.

Johnson-Trammell said during a presentation to the school board Jan. 23 her goal is to “transform our school system” to better serve all students.

“I realize we are going through some challenging times, but I remain hopeful that we can all pull together so our students ultimately win,” she said. “We all want highly resourced, quality schools in every neighborhood. We also want to meet the growing demand for innovative schools throughout our city.”

The district last closed schools about seven years ago under former Superintendent Tony Smith. But the district’s experience then has made some dubious about the impact of the current plan. Although the district expected to save about $2 million through the previous closures, current board member Shanthi Gonzales has said the school closures led some families to leave the district, which resulted in a loss of state funding that offset any savings.

Others say that district schools did not improve as a result of the closures, despite assurances at the time that they would.

“They made the same promise to us in 2012 regarding improved quality,” said Mike Hutchinson, a local activist who is organizing opposition to school closures. “We need to resource all our schools so you can get that opportunity in every neighborhood without having to leave your neighborhood.”

Although the total number of students attending district schools has remained relatively flat over the past four years at about 37,000, the number of students in district charter schools has increased from 10,981 in 2014-15 to 13,135 in 2017-18, as more charter schools have opened or expanded. Oakland now has 44 charter schools, compared to 86 district schools.

Many of the remaining district schools are under-enrolled, but enrollment patterns are uneven. Schools where students have higher test scores tend to be more popular and have waiting lists, while those with lower test scores attract fewer students in the district’s open enrollment process.

School closure critic Mike Hutchinson speaks to the Oakland school board on Jan. 23, 2018, while supporters of Roots International Academy hold a sign across the board room demanding no school closures or school budget cuts. (Photo by Theresa Harrington/ EdSource Today)

The citywide map of schools that Johnson-Trammell is working on will include the locations of charter schools and will attempt to integrate them into new attendance boundaries and feeder patterns from elementary to middle and high schools.

The district is also attempting to identify the best locations for district and charter schools, based on where students are projected to live.

Johnson-Trammell is hoping to attract new students to the district by expanding popular programs or schools. Last year, only 58 percent of school-age children in Oakland attended district-run schools, according to a Nov. 14 board presentation. An additional 22 percent attended charter schools. And nearly 20 percent chose other options, including private schools, home-schooling or schools in other districts. Although the district is projecting that this trend will continue over the next five years, it is also anticipating that it could see increased revenues if it is able to attract new students or retain those who usually leave when they get to middle school or high school.

Some Oakland Unified teachers and school board members, along with teachers and school board members across California, have said charter schools are a financial drain because they draw away students and the state money that goes with them. 

The board is so concerned about the impact of charter schools on the district that it has come up with a detailed list of proposed reforms to California’s charter law. One of the proposals is for districts that are in “fiscal distress” to be able to suspend the approval of new charter schools or the renewal of existing ones that want to expand student enrollments.

Mirella Rangel, center, director of community organizing at GO Public Schools Oakland, discusses her concerns about school closures in Oakland Unified during a Dec. 11, 2018, meeting hosted by her organization. (Photo by Theresa Harrington, EdSource Today)

Oakland Unified has not yet released the full list of schools it intends to close, but it has released a list of under-enrolled schools and officials have begun meeting with principals and parents at schools being considered, including Roots International Academy. Several of the school’s students and other supporters voiced opposition to closing the school at the Jan. 23 school board meeting. They persuaded the school board and Johnson-Trammell to listen to students’ concerns for more than two hours, delaying the regular board meeting. The students included them in a Restorative Justice Circle, which is a process that focuses on discussion to resolve disputes.

The district’s teachers’ union, which opposes school closures, plans to hold a strike authorization vote Jan. 29 through Feb. 1. It has been working without a contract since July 2017 and could strike next month after a fact-finding hearing Jan. 31 and Feb. 1 concludes and a report is issued, based on facts presented by both sides.

Throughout the district, parents and teachers are worried that their schools may be targeted for closure.

The Oakland REACH parent group made up largely of African-American and Latino parents whose children attend both district and charter schools in the Oakland “flatlands” — which are generally lower-income areas of the city. Executive Director Lakisha Young has asked the board to create an “Opportunity Ticket” that would allow students displaced by closures to receive priority enrollment in a high-quality district or charter school.

Mirella Rangel, director of community organizing for the nonprofit education advocacy group GO Public Schools, worked in the district when schools were closed in 2012. She recently participated in a community meeting hosted by her organization, where school closures were discussed.

“We have too many schools,” she said. “Closures are likely necessary, but they’re going to be hard. And I worry that we won’t get it right — that we won’t get to quality.”

Story originally published by EdSource.