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Monday, January 30, 2023

Oakland’s new school board voted not to close schools — but at what cost?

Earlier this month, Oakland Unified’s newly seated school board voted to rescind the controversial closures of five elementary schools, which — because of budget constraints and declining student enrollment — the previous board had slated to shutter later this year.

Across the city, the backtrack of the closures was celebrated by many as a win for families across the city. But at a school board meeting on Wednesday, the details of keeping schools open were put under a magnifying glass — and many were left wondering how the district will pay for schools to remain open after all.

“The amount of money that we have does not change,” said Oakland Unified Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, who presented a financial analysis to the board that night. “Whether we decide to have 10 more schools, 5 more schools, or 10 less schools. If we add five schools back, you have the same amount, and we have to redistribute what everyone gets.”

Last February, the state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team reported that the district was facing a budget shortfall of more than $60 million per year, and that across the district, nearly 40% of all elementary schools had fewer than 304 students, the number needed to keep schools sustainable. The five elementary schools due to close — Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Horace Mann Elementary, and Korematsu Discovery Academy — all had fewer than 200 students, the report said. Grass Valley, the smallest, had just 128.

On Wednesday, the Superintendent’s presentation showed even more staggering figures: that rescinding the closures, for example, will lead to staff costs of over $5 million, along with expanded facility upgrades, a plan with an $82.9 million price tag.

Despite the costs, families — and many of the board members — were not swayed by the numbers. Some parents expressed their continued relief for the rescinding of school closures; others expressed their hesitancy to accept the findings of the report, with some on the board and in the audience claiming it told a narrow, uneven picture of financial impact.

“I’m ready, like so many other community members and mothers of kids affected by school closures to finally be able to move forward and start the healing process for the trauma of the last 11 months,” said Meghan Langston, whose child attends Hillcrest Elementary, which was slated to lose its middle school before the vote was versed.

The move to close the schools was met with bitter opposition last year. There were packed school board meetings, days of protests, and two teachers on hunger strikes, along with a complaint from the ACLU of Northern California and calls for an investigation into how race played a role in the closures.

But at the same time, Oakland Unified was in financial turmoil. For nearly two decades, the district was under what’s known as state receivership, a mechanism that guarantees the state control over key decisions when a district runs out of money.

Now, Oakland Unified is in a similar, yet different sort of operating arrangement — though it still owes money to the state, the district now runs under the authority of the county, and a financial trustee monitors and reviews district operations. That trustee, Luz Cazares, still has the power to rescind any decision the school board makes.

In a letter to the public last week, Oakland Unified said Cazares is “reserving the right to exercise that authority over this board decision pending the receipt of additional information.”

Nina Senn, a former school board member, worries that the decision to rescind the school closures — and the way the school board reversed that decision last week, well before receiving the financial analysis — could leave the door open for full state takeover in the future. As a result, Senn said, that could lead to even more sweeping changes across the district, and ones that are completely out of the local board’s hands.

“There’s been a lot of voices about no school closures,” said Senn. “But if the state takes over, the decision about which schools, or how many schools, won’t be the public’s decision. And that’s a big loss.”

Another former board member, Jody London, expressed similar concerns. Last month, she said, the district got a positive financial certification from the Alameda County superintendent for the first time in nearly 20 years. After the board’s decision to rescind the school closures last week, the County Superintendent issued a letter calling the board’s decision “ambitious” and reminding the district it hasn’t disclosed how they will pay to keep the schools open. As a result, the district’s certification went from “positive” to “qualified,” a change that notes the district may not be able to meet its financial obligations over the next three years.

“To me, it’s very ironic,” said London. “We’re at almost exactly 20 years to the day that the district went into receivership, and here they are, on the brink of going back in because it’s not clear how they’re going to pay for this plan that they just undid.”

Despite such statistics, critics of the school closures have long said that doing so would not save the district as much money as anticipated, and that the costs associated with shifting students from one school to another would add up. But even so, the school board is continuing to grapple with its options, and how to accommodate schools that are both under-attended and under-resourced.

Nearly all Bay Area public schools are facing declines in school enrollment. According to the California Department of Education, those drops have been most significant for elementary-aged students. Last year, Oakland Unified saw a 5% drop in the number of students enrolled, accounting for 1,900 students total.

In the financial analysis, OUSD’s superintendent and other high-level staff say the that rescinding school closures will remove the previously planned option for children in closing schools to enroll in their preferred classroom. The five elementary schools that were to be closed had an average demand rate of just 34%, meaning that the majority of families enrolled in those schools would have preferred another option.

But for families like Langston’s, her child’s school closure could have resulted in the exact opposite. At the meeting, she spoke of how she had been considering moving her family to another district where her son could still walk to school. If the school closures had gone through, they would have lost that option.

“This is not going to be easy,” said Mike Hutchinson, the school board president and District 5 Director. “Unfortunately, we can’t just say we’re rescinding school closures, and everything is just going to be perfect. But I think as a board, we made a philosophical choice that we are not going to close schools. … Now, we face the test.”

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