School Board Votes Decisively to Close East Oakland's Roots Middle School by End of Year

Students and community members await the school board's vote on Monday to close Roots International Academy, a middle school in East Oakland.  (Vanessa Rancaño/KQED)

Despite fierce opposition, the Oakland Unified school board voted overwhelmingly on Monday night to close Roots International Academy by the end of this year.

The board's decision, which follows weeks of community backlash, marks the first confirmed school closure in the district’s controversial plan to shutter up to 24 school sites, an effort to chip away at its massive budget deficit and achieve a degree of financial stability.

After hearing emotional pleas from students and teachers for more than two hours at Monday's meeting, board members voted 6-1 in favor of the proposal to close Roots, a small middle school in East Oakland that opened its doors in 2006. There are currently 266 students enrolled, according to school staff.

School board president Aimee Eng appeared pained after the vote.

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“Unfortunately, we’re in this untenable position as a school board where we cannot adequately resource all 87 of our schools, and we’re having to make these difficult and terrible trade-offs,” she said.

In December, just before winter break, the district abruptly announced its intention to close the school, citing declining enrollment and consistently dismal test scores. Pressed about why it wasn't delaying the closure for another year, as it will likely do for some of the other school sites, the district’s deputy chief of innovation, Yvette Renteria, explained that there simply wasn't enough of a budget to keep the school open past the end of the year.

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If Roots were to stay open next year to accommodate current students, but not include an incoming sixth grade class,  she said, “we would only have a budget of 4.25 teachers for 140 students, which is not a sufficient amount of teachers to run a school.”

Renteria also assured Roots' teachers that they would not lose their jobs.

“We have job openings all the time," she said. "We want to first and foremost support our teachers so they get placed into those positions.”

Nonetheless, the decision is likely to further inflame tensions between the district and the teachers' union, which is staunchly opposed to school closures. Teachers are voting this week on whether to give union leadership authority to call a strike if last-ditch bargaining efforts fail.

Oakland teachers are among the lowest paid in the Bay Area, and have been working without a contract since July 2017.

“We are demanding that this proposal be pulled and that this issue be brought to the bargaining table," Oakland Education Association president Keith Brown told board members ahead of last night's vote. He warned the board that the California Teachers Association, the statewide union, would get involved and “seek the necessary legal actions to prevent the closure of Roots.”

Students impacted by the closure will be given priority to enroll in nearby better-performing schools, the district said. That includes Coliseum College Prep Academy, a sixth- through 12th-grade school located on the same campus, which the district said will be able to accommodate 79 Roots students next year.

But that's little consolation for Roots parent Silvia Ornelas.

"I’m just upset," she said. "The kids are so cared for at our school, and I feel they’re just going to be pushed to the side in
any other school they go to.”