Educators, parents and youth gather in protest during a citywide rally at Oakland City Hall on Feb. 4, 2022. (Amaya Edwards/KQED)
In an interview with KQED, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the state should not get involved in the Oakland school board's recent controversial decision to close, merge or shrink 11 schools over the next two years — a decision that's been met with fury from local families and educators.
The board said they needed to take the action because they have too many schools for a dwindling number of students, citing a need for cost-cutting measures to help solve a structural deficit. OUSD is still paying $30 million in debt to the state from a loan given decades ago to head off bankruptcy.
More on the Oakland school closure fight
Two Oakland educators, Moses Omolade and Maurice André San-Chez, went on hunger strikes to protest the decision. They said one of the conditions of ending their strike was that Newsom meet with them.
In his talk with KQED, Newsom disclosed that his chief of staff met with the hunger strikers last week.
Omolade and San-Chez agreed to end their hunger strike in mid-February after the district called a special board meeting, where it ultimately decided to move forward with the closures.
While getting his hands dirty cleaning up a roadside encampment, Newsom previewed his upcoming conservatorship proposal, talked about his view on the Oakland school closures, and more, in this interview with KQED's Kate Wolffe.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On the Oakland hunger strikers, who were protesting the closure and merging of 11 schools in the district
I so appreciate their advocacy, and compassion for the community, and their advocacy on behalf of the school system and the communities the school system serves.
These local decisions are local decisions.
I remember in San Francisco when I was mayor, I think when I was supervisor, even prior, there were some schools that had to close. They’re deeply emotional, difficult decisions. I don't deny that.
But if the state is going to get involved in deciding that, then we should be running all the school systems, and that's not something you want, I don't think anyone wants. We've got to provide that local accountability, local framework. That's why school boards are essential and critical and public engagement, parental engagement, is critical and essential as well. But I deeply understand how emotional it is. I don't know the details of the decision. I just don't.
As a mayor in the past, I understand those local decisions need to be made and stay local. But at the state level, I know what we are doing, which is providing unprecedented support for our schools and record-breaking per-pupil investments that should provide more flexibility to Oakland [Unified] School District than they've ever had in their history to address some of their financial challenges.
On efforts to resolve encampments in the state
The last two years, we all know what happened. We didn't just have a pandemic, but we had stasis. And the CDC had specific, very explicit guidelines that said don't touch the encampments because of COVID.
So the entire year 2020, I think there were two dozen encampments cleaned up the entire year by the state of California. We've done 431 just in the last few months. So we've got all this residual stress that has exacerbated conditions on the street more visible than it's ever been. And I recognize that. And now there's no excuse.
On the importance of addressing homeless encampments locally
If you're a local elected official, you step up. If this is the crisis that it is and you have identified as such, then get out here — act like it.
I'm serious. We're doing our part. Now you can come out and follow up, do your part. If you need help, identify specifically, what specific help do you need?
[When I was mayor,] the state of California was nowhere to be found on homelessness. Nowhere. When I was mayor, we didn't get a dollar. There was no strategy plan, no accountability. No one, ever. I mean, the last thing I ever thought about was calling Arnold Schwarzenegger or Gray Davis. It's completely, radically changed.
When I got here there was no plan. There was no accountability and there was no playbook. And there was half a billion dollars that the last administration threw out at the last minute. Now we have $14 billion. We have a plan, we have strategies, we actually have accountability plans, including this Encampment Resolution grant.
On the challenges of resolving encampments
(Note: At the particular encampment that Newsom was cleaning in Redwood City, Caltrans said no residents accepted a shelter bed.)
We’re going to have to keep meeting people where they are. You don't give up. I mean, of course, that's the case. What I think, look, I mean, this is not my first encampment, this is not my first effort. I reject the fatalism that, well, because "in this circumstance, that circumstance, we weren't successful in encouraging people to get the support and services they need" that we give up. That just means keep working at it.
One thing I can guarantee: Continue to do what you've done, you get what you've got. And there's a status quo anti-ism in all of this. If you don't create, as we say in psychology, a "pattern interrupt" — and this is a pattern interrupt for every single one of them — then you're not going to enliven someone to the opportunity to turn their lives around. They're just quite literally going to die.
On his upcoming conservatorship proposal
Laws on conservatorship are outdated and they're very controversial. It's very emotional and people have very strong opinions, and we've been fighting these fights for decades and nothing gets done. People say “too strong,” “too hard,” “too weak.”
So we are looking at a third way, a new conservatorship strategy, where we are going to provide a pathway for individuals to help with their own plan, but to have stepped-up strategies where we can get people the support they desperately need, even if they're absolutely convinced they don't need it, even though they may be out naked on the streets and sidewalks, talking to themselves and defecating and urinating.
And that's not humane, and we can't excuse that, and it should break all of our hearts. I feel for those folks. But I also feel for the mom in the stroller trying to go down the streets and the sidewalks being accosted and can’t get to the playground as well. And what's that balance? And so we're trying to strike that balance.
But, the status quo hasn't worked at all. And look at what's happened in my beloved city of San Francisco, in the last five or six years. It's just not acceptable.
A lot of the conservatorship arguments have been done in the absence of resources. So we're saying, well, you need treatment and you're like, "Where's the treatment? There's no treatment." You know, like "get people off the streets!" And like, where do they go? And that's the paradigm shift in the last few years: unprecedented money [and], building out an infrastructure with the support of the cities and counties over the last two years.