By Ken Epstein
The Oakland School Board has backed away from closing some schools and has pushed back the bulk of school closings until the end of next school year in an apparent attempt to blunt growing protests over school closings.
Over the past week, these protests have turned into school walkouts and strikes at affected schools, a hunger strike in Westlake Middle, opposition from council members and growing demands for action from of Governor Gavin Newsom and other state officials.
Adopted by a 4-2 board vote on Tuesday evening, the final amended list of school closures and mergers includes two schools that will close this year: Parker Elementary School in East Oakland and Community Day School , which serves students with some of the greatest needs. Students will transfer to a county program 18 miles away in Hayward.
In addition to full closures, La Escuelita will lose its 6,7 and 8 grades, and New Highland Academy will be merged into Rise Community.
Five schools will be closed at the end of 2023: Korematsu Discovery Academy and Horace Mann Elementary, as well as three schools that have been postponed from this year: Brookfield Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary and Carl Munck Elementary.
Hillcrest Elementary will lose grades 6, 7 and 8 at the end of next year.
Board members opposing the decision were VanCedric Williams and Mike Hutchinson. Gary Yee, Shanthi Gonzales, Aimee Eng and Sam Davis voted in favor of the motion. Clifford Thompson abstained.
Some of the seven schools removed from the initial list of closed schools have been the subject of strong public demonstrations of school and community support. At this time, the district no longer plans to close Prescott Elementary School in West Oakland.
The district also dropped plans to relocate and merge Westlake Middle School into West Oakland Middle School. Ralph Bunche Academy and Dewey Academy will no longer be moved to the Westlake campus.
Additionally, Manzanita Community School will no longer be merged with Fruitvale Elementary School.
The Oakland Post has requested a statement on OUSD’s closings, but as of press time has not received one.
Under state control since 2003, communities in Oakland have continually fought against school closures and consolidations, but nothing as massive as the current level of protests.
With the state-funded Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team (FCMAT) still looming in the background, the district has already closed about 20 schools in 19 years and is under pressure to close more, sell and rent up to 40 others.
Supporting the closures, Mayor Libby Schools, who has close ties to charter school privatizers and real estate developers, said in a Feb. 4 KQED television interview that the district could close up to half of the public schools in the city, adding: “This is an opportunity to do better for our students, for our educators, for our families.
Among the protests that have taken place in schools over the past two weeks have been a mass rally and march downtown by teachers and community groups, a parents’ strike in La Escuelita, a demonstration in Brookfield, a hunger strike and student walkouts in Westlake Middle, a mass rally against school closures in Prescott, a strike in Grass Valley, and a strike and town hall meeting in Parker.
The teachers’ union is considering a continuous strike, meaning schools would take turns striking for a week at a time. On Monday, a union meeting overwhelmingly approved a strike motion.
Said Keith Brown, president of the teachers’ union, in a press release:
“Students, families, educators, community members, the Oakland City Council and the Alameda County School Board all opposed (the council’s action). Teachers, parents, labor and the community are united to stop the implementation of school closures.
City council members have spoken out against the closures.
District 3 council member Carroll Fife, who helped organize community support at Prescott School, urged the community to turn pain and grief into action.
“My heart breaks for the families, teachers and communities who will be immediately affected, but for those who have put their bodies on the line and organized for the reality we want to see, this is fuel for the movement . This is our call to action,” she said.
Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan said the state must take responsibility.
“Many years ago, the state of California took control of the public schools in Oakland, which they say was in an effort to fix the finances,” she said. “Unfortunately, state officials who control OUSD have run into debt, which has worsened the financial situation of the schools. Now that California has a record budget surplus, it is all the more unfair that our young people and families are suffering as they cut their schools to pay off the debt accumulated by state officials.
Council member Sheng Thao said she was working with state leaders to find more money for Oakland schools. “Our families deserve a transparent and fair process and that didn’t happen here. It is not fair. It’s not only. And it shouldn’t last,” she said,
According to board member Nikki ‘Fortunato Bas, “budgetary challenges must be addressed by our unprecedented public surplus and support the stability of our students – during one of the already most destabilizing times of their lives.”