City, state, and labor leaders gathered at Oakland City Hall on Wednesday to speak out against the decision by the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education to close, merge or reduce grades for 11 schools, a decision rejected by many in the community.
Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan stood alongside state Assemblywoman Mia Bonta, D-Oakland, City Council President Pro Tempore Sheng Thao, and among others, teachers union president Keith Brown to denounce the vote.
The school board’s narrow approval of the resolution came during a contentious meeting that began Tuesday night and lasted into the early morning hours Wednesday.
The measure is an effort to confront an expected budget deficit and has brought protests from students, teachers and parents, including a hunger strike by two teachers.
The virtual meeting drew hundreds of callers, all of which opposed the district’s plan during a public comment session. Despite that opposition, the board approved an amended version shortly before 1 a.m.
Five more schools will close at the end of the next school year in 2023: Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Fred T. Korematsu Discovery Academy and Horace Mann Elementary.
In addition, the measure approved merges RISE Elementary into New Highland Academy Elementary for the start of the 2022-23 school year. Beginning that same school year, La Escuelita Elementary and Hillcrest Elementary will eliminate grades 6-8.
“None of these school closures is justified,” school board member Mike Hutchinson said at Wednesday’s gathering. Hutchinson voted against the action by the board.
Board members Sam Davis, Aimee Eng, Gary Yee and Shanthi Gonzales voted in favor; Samantha Pal, Clifford Thompson and Natalie Gallegos Chavez abstained, and VanCedric Williams also voted no.
Driven by enrollment declines
According to the district, school mergers or closures are needed due to declining enrollment, particularly in its elementary schools. Because public schools are funded based on enrollment, this has led to a deficit over the next two years. The district says 35 percent of its schools are enrolled at “below sustainable” levels.
Declining enrollments, the district says, are caused by factors including lower birth rates, pandemic-related moves out of the district and a lack of affordable housing.
But members of the teachers union have said the changes approved early Wednesday will affect schools that serve mainly Black students.
Demographic data show that 36 percent of the population on average at the affected schools is Black, while 42 percent is Hispanic. Less than 10 percent on average are Asian and less than 10 percent are white.
Oakland Education Association president Keith Brown said that when schools serving mainly Black students are closed and reopened as charter or new schools in the district, the reopened schools serve fewer Black students.
He added that the focus of the school district during this pandemic should be the health and safety of people in the school community rather than closing schools.
Aiming to close schools in Black and Brown communities has been a pattern for the Oakland Unified School District, according to the union, which called the board’s decision reckless, and vowed to take action.
Union plans action
“Today, our union will take legal action against Oakland Unified to prevent the rushed and unnecessary closure of schools serving majority Black students,” Brown said.
“And, if it comes to it, I am prepared to ask Oakland educators to strike to protect our schools,” he said. “OUSD has the necessary reserves to keep schools running, and that excuse needs to stop now.”
The union plans to file a complaint with the California Public Employment Relations Board, which administers the collective bargaining laws covering public school employees and employees of a host of other organizations.
Bonta said she introduced urgency legislation to relieve the Oakland Unified School District of the pressure to close and consolidate schools because of declining enrollment and financial pressures.
Details of that legislation were not immediately available.