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Oakland Moves to Close 7 Schools Despite Fierce Community Opposition

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Three young people stand with their signs. One in a purple jacket, one in a red jacket and one person in a jean jacket with a sign saying "Hands off our schools."
Malou, a Melrose Leadership Academy student, listens to speeches during a citywide demonstration against school closures at Oakland City Hall on Feb. 4, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)

After almost eight hours of heated public comment and debate, Oakland school board members narrowly approved an amended plan early Wednesday morning to close seven schools over the next two years and merge two others, amid declining enrollments and ongoing budget concerns.

The Oakland Board of Education's decision, voted on just before 1 a.m., is a slightly less severe version of the original proposal — which would have affected 16 schools — and comes after more than a week of protests by students, teachers and parents, including a hunger strike led by two educators.

Under the amended plan, seven of the eight schools on the initial closure list will still shut down, but on a delayed timeline: Community Day School and Parker K-8 will still close at the end of this school year, but the closures of Brookfield Elementary, Carl Munck Elementary and Grass Valley Elementary will be pushed to the end of the 2022-23 school year. Korematsu Discovery Academy and Horace Mann Elementary will also close in 2023, as called for in the original plan.

Prescott Elementary in West Oakland, however, which was initially on the chopping block, will be spared under the revised plan, after the board reasoned there would be too few remaining district-run elementary schools in that part of the city.

Meanwhile, the district will merge only two of the six schools it had originally considered consolidating: RISE Community will merge into New Highland Academy Elementary at the start of the 2022-23 school year, while La Escuelita Elementary and Hillcrest Elementary will eliminate grades 6-8.

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The board also dropped plans to merge Manzanita Community School and Fruitvale Elementary, Westlake Middle School and West Oakland Middle School, and Dewey Academy and Ralph Bunche Continuation High School.

On Tuesday evening, ahead of the vote, students, teachers and parents pleaded with the board, via Zoom, for more than 3.5 hours, many arguing that the closures wouldn’t save enough money to justify the heartache.

“We need our education just like how everybody else had their education,” Jelani Smith, a Parker seventh grader, told the board. “It’s not right for our school to get closed down while you’re keeping all the other schools.”

Many commenters expressed outrage at the disproportionate impact the closures would have on lower-income students of color.

“It’s not fair. Why would you close the schools on low-income families?” asked one parent, who didn’t give her name. “Why don’t you just close the ones where they have money so they can move on? Why do they always take it out on us, the low-income families?”

Among the schools affected by the plan, an estimated 93% of students, on average, are considered either lower-income, English learners or foster youth — compared to the district-wide average of about 80%. Black and Latino students are also overrepresented: About 43% of students at the eight sites on the original closure list are Black, almost twice the proportion of Black students in the entire district.

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“I’m just really disgusted and really hurt over just the blatant attack on our communities of color,” Renia Webb, a parent of four, told the board. “We all know that these schools slated for closure will have a devastating and lasting impact on Black and Brown families.”

Board member Aimee Eng said she and vice president Sam Davis drafted the amended proposal as an effort to balance the district’s fiscal needs with the desire to give families and staff more time to adjust to the changes. The amendment passed 4-2, with additional support from Board President Gary Yee and board member Shanthi Gonzales. Board members Mike Hutchinson and VanCedric Williams opposed the plan, while Clifford Thompson abstained.

“To me it’s a choice about whether people are comfortable just persisting in the status quo that we know is not working for students and it’s not working for staff, or we can actually do something,” Gonzales said.

The board also approved a second amendment put forward by Davis to provide academic and social-emotional learning supports for students affected by the closures, with funding from a special state allotment. Assembly Bill 1840, passed in 2018, makes OUSD eligible for infusions of cash from the state if it meets certain benchmarks that demonstrate it is working toward financial stability.

District leaders who support the closure plan argue the district operates too many schools for the declining number of students it serves. An estimated 35% of district schools are enrolled at "below sustainable" levels, according to district officials, who attribute the decline to factors such as lower birth rates, pandemic-related moves out of the district and a lack of affordable housing.

Fewer students mean significantly less funding. Last month the board approved some $40 million in budget cuts and savings, but that doesn’t address major shortfalls projected for the coming years, including an estimated deficit of $12.3 million for 2022-23.

The planned school closures and consolidations are estimated to save between $4 million and almost $15 million, according to an analysis commissioned by the board. By spending more on fewer schools, district officials say they can boost teacher pay and offer students stronger academic programs.

But critics of the plan say the district hasn’t done a thorough enough analysis of past school closures — including those in 2019 and 2012 — to determine whether they resulted in better academic outcomes for kids and whether the closures actually saved money in the long run, given the number of students who left the district as a result.

“The lid’s about to come off this city,” said Hutchinson, an outspoken critic of the plan who expressed his displeasure throughout the board meeting.

Hutchinson, who attended Oakland schools, campaigned on stopping school closures when he ran for school board in 2020.

“You just declared war on us,” he said.

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