San Francisco Chronicle

Staff: Board’s decision will hurt entire OUSD

- By Jill Tucker

The Oakland school board’s decision this month to keep five underenrol­led and low-performing schools from closing at the end of the school year will have dire financial and academic consequenc­es on classrooms across the district, according to a staff analysis of the last-minute reversal.

With a new president and a newly sworn-in majority of members against school closures, the board rescinded the decision to close the schools during a special meeting, with little advance notice, in early January, violating its own policy that requires the board to review the fiscal impact of any decision prior to a vote.

Instead, the board is expected to review the fiscal and academic impact after the fact at its meeting Wednesday.

The decision, however, could be undone. The district is still under state receiversh­ip after running out of money in 2003 and remains under the authority of a fiscal trustee, who has the power to nullify the vote based on the district’s financial outlook. The district has until Wednesday to submit the new plan for review.

The reversal of school closures won’t be a done deal until a fiscal trustee reviews and accepts the decision, taking into considerat­ion the district’s financial outlook.

Alameda County Superinten­dent of Schools Alysse Castro said the board clearly has the authority to decide to keep schools open, but said it now has more work to do in the wake of the decision.

“I believe there is a real but difficult path forward to do so while balancing the budget,” she said. “The original decision to close schools was made as part of a budget-balancing package, and the board needs to roll up its sleeves immediatel­y and identify the fiscal impact of rescinding the school closures and identify other areas that can be scaled back.”

Keeping the schools open, each with fewer than 200 students, will cost more than $5.1 million annually in staffing costs, as well as an undetermin­ed amount in facilities and maintenanc­e costs, which will reduce the repairs and other needs expected at other schools, staff said. The district’s annual budget is about $750 million, with no expected shortfall in the coming year.

In addition, district officials noted that keeping the schools open for the foreseeabl­e future will require modernizin­g and upgrading the facilities, with an estimated cost of $82.9 million at four of the five sites. There is no current plan or budget to cover those costs, officials said.

Mike Hutchinson, the president of the Oakland school board, didn’t return a request for comment. The district declined to comment.

The board voted last year to close or merge 11 schools across the district over two years in the face of tough budget decisions, plummeting enrollment and a cluster of tiny schools that were costly to keep open. Families and the teachers union pushed back on the controvers­ial decision, pointing out that many of the schools being shuttered had a high share of low-income students of color. The backlash culminated in protests, pleas to the state, a parent occupation of one of the shuttered schools and a hunger strike that led to the temporary

hospitaliz­ation of one teacher.

Keeping the schools open also likely means the district will have to co-locate charter schools on district campuses based on a state law that requires making underutili­zed sites available. That could include the five sites remaining open or other campuses where they had hoped to increase enrollment from the transferri­ng students.

District officials hoped that the transfer of students from the five schools slated for closure would help boost enrollment in other schools next year, ensuring more of the district’s 77 sites would be fiscally viable with at least 305 students. Instead, the district is now projecting 15 schools will fall below that threshold, meaning they will require more funding than they would get based on enrollment.

“The District did not have sufficient resources to fully support all of its existing schools at the level that the District sought to

fund them and that the schools needed in order to offer a high quality education,” according to the analysis, referring to the initial decision to close schools. “Therefore, in addition to addressing its structural deficit, the District sought to reduce the number of schools it operated so that the remaining schools could be ‘properly resourced and staffed.’ ”

Because the schools are so small, with too few kindergart­en students in a few cases to fill even one classroom, the district spends a disproport­ionate amount to keep them open, according to the analysis.

At Grass Valley Elementary, one of the schools slated for closure, there are 128 students this year, with the district spending nearly $19,000 on each for general education costs — double the district average per student.

The base costs to operate a school are similar regardless of how many students attend, meaning the district has to take

money from larger schools to supplement these small schools, district officials said.

The other four elementary schools slated for closure are Brookfield, with 140 students; Carl B. Munck, with 162 students; Korematsu Discovery Academy, with 182 students; and Horace Mann, with 194 students.

Hillcrest, a K-8 school, will keep its middle school grades based on the board’s vote.

The analysis also noted that the decision to keep the schools open comes late into the enrollment process for the fall, requiring a separate applicatio­n process to add them back into the system.

It also means that 751 students from the six schools will no longer be eligible for an Opportunit­y Ticket, giving them priority admission to the school of their choice. Many families have already applied for fall placement based on that ticket, with the ontime applicatio­n cycle from Dec. 1 to Feb. 10.

It’s unclear what the late change will mean for enrollment at the five schools, although district officials predicted it could fall even further.

Oakland has long had more schools than districts with similar enrollment, up to twice as many in some cases. For years, district officials have debated how to “right-size,” reducing the number of sites to ensure resources are focused in the classroom rather than spent on more principals, school staff and halffull facilities.

For years, enrollment has been declining in the district, with 34,141 students this year, down from 36,431 in 2018. There is no reason to believe the downward trend will stop, district officials said.

Kindergart­en enrollment has dipped considerab­ly over the same period, with a loss of nearly 400 students in the past four years, given lower birth rates and other factors, according to the report.

The district analysis noted that past efforts to merge small schools have showed some success.

Combining Elmhurst and Alliance middle schools pushed overall attendance up to 767 students this year, up from 659 in 2018, allowing the schools to offer electives, including Spanish, music and advanced math, as well as an extensive reading interventi­on program, which they couldn’t offer individual­ly, officials said.

Board member Sam Davis, who voted against keeping the schools open, said he would like to see an analysis of the educationa­l impacts of leaving students at schools that are so small they can’t sustain the support services or other resources available at other schools, like a fulltime counselor, social worker or music teacher.

Lakisha Young, co-founder and CEO of the literacy-focused nonprofit the Oakland Reach, said all the time spent talking about closing or not closing city schools has been a tremendous distractio­n from what really matters: kids.

“I would tell the community to wake up,” she said, adding the school closure debate has been going on for decades. “Those kids couldn’t read the day before they rescinded the closures and they won’t be able to read the day after.”

Proficienc­y rates at the schools slated for closure have lagged well behind the district average, with just 2% of students at Horace Mann proficient in math and English, for example. At Grass Valley, 12% of students were at grade level in English and 7% in math.

The debate has never been about the children, Young said.

“You know the kids at these schools are failing,” she said. “If you really want to take care of our community, you would stay unapologet­ically focused on how these kids are learning.”

She questioned the district leaders celebratin­g the vote.

“What is being saved in this moment while you’re doing a victory lap?” Young said. “You get to make (keeping schools open) the focus and ignore the day-to-day realities of the families that ... can’t afford to be part of that debate and just want their kids to read.”

 ?? Stephen Lam/The Chronicle 2022 ?? Steven Velasquez, 7, a second grader at Horace Mann Elementary, protests with others against Oakland Unified School District’s plan to close several schools last March.
Stephen Lam/The Chronicle 2022 Steven Velasquez, 7, a second grader at Horace Mann Elementary, protests with others against Oakland Unified School District’s plan to close several schools last March.
 ?? Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle 2022 ?? Jacqueline Cashman (left) embraces friend Moses Omolade, who was on a hunger strike in opposition to the school closures.
Gabrielle Lurie/The Chronicle 2022 Jacqueline Cashman (left) embraces friend Moses Omolade, who was on a hunger strike in opposition to the school closures.

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