At OUSD school board meeting, parents and students rally against proposed school closures
By Yirmeyah Beckles
September 28, 2011 – More than 40 students from Lakeview Elementary, wearing matching yellow T-shirts, waved protest signs reading “Save our school!” to the beat of drums outside Oakland High School before the start of the school board’s Tuesday meeting.
Their voices were strong, direct and in unison. “Lakeview is the school of choice, listen to our voice!” they repeated.
David Sengue, pre-kindergartener at Lakeview Elementary School attened the OUSD meeting on Tuesday to protest the closing of his school.
That was only the start of an emotional Oakland Unified School District board meeting that attracted hundreds of agitated parents and children, and went on until nearly midnight. Although the board took no action Tuesday night in its controversial plan to close or consolidate more than a dozen of the city’s schools, the evening included 88 public speakers, crying families and open debate about whether angry parents should be given one or two minutes apiece to address the board.
“You were voted to represent us,” someone shouted from the crowded auditorium seats, “not decide for us!”
Oakland Unified School District school superintendent Tony Smith gave his recommendations for school closures early in the meeting. By October 26, board members are scheduled to approve or reject Smith’s plan: Five elementary schools—Lakeview, Lazear, Marshall, Maxwell and Sante Fe—to be closed in 2012. Two elementary schools—Burckhalter and Kaiser—to be either enlarged for more students or relocated to somewhere else in Oakland. A merger between Sobrante Park Elementary and Madison Middle School that would create a K-12 school in just over a year. And seven high schools that are now small schools on the Fremont and Castlemont campuses—Youth Empowerment School, College Prep & Architecture, Mandela Academy, Media Academy, Leadership Preparatory, Information Technology School of Arts and East Oakland’s School of the Arts—to be combined back into two schools.
School district officials have said that for budgetary reasons they must reduce the district’s 101 schools by 20 to 30 in the span of three years. “Oakland Unified has more schools than it can sustain,” Smith told the crowd, explaining a PowerPoint presentation displayed on a giant screen on the auditorium stage. “We’ve been having this [particular] conversation for a couple of years.”
The OUSD, whose board members have the final vote on closures, is arguing that there are too many schools in Oakland’s district to maintain a high education standard.
OUSD superintendent Tony Smith presents a PowerPoint explaining criteria for school closures.
But the audience members did not appear reassured. “So what is your point?” asked Jaliza Eagles, whose son attends Carl Munck Elementary (a school not currently on the closure list). “If your point is about increasing API scores, you have schools on the closure list that are doing that. If your point is on educating African-American and Latino students, you have schools on the list doing that. To have a meeting and talk about voting within a month on the eleventh hour is disrespect. Period.”
Some parents brought up the two schools, Burckhalter and Kaiser, that were named on a preliminary list for closure three weeks ago but were recently removed. “Now you’ve taken Kaiser off the list because it’s doing a good job with 76 percent middle class kids?” said Philippa Barron, a mother of twins who attend Piedmont Avenue Elementary. “Shoot, I think we would be scoring in the 900s if we had 76 percent middle class kids. Now you want to study Kaiser, or maybe expand it? There’s nothing to study. You could study Glenview or Sequoia, or Piedmont Ave.”
Kaiser is an elementary school in the Oakland Hills that draws students from all parts of Oakland. When the school was recommended for closure, parents, teachers and staff rallied to keep their school open. They attended every school board meeting (and one facilities meeting) on OUSD’s calendar. It worked, apparently, and now that Kaiser is off the closure list, other school groups want to be responded to the same way.
“We need parents and citizens to stand together united,” said Ben Visnick, an Oakland High School history teacher who said he had noticed people starting to single out other schools. “It’s not Kaiser versus Lakeview, its not Burckhalter versus Marshall. No school should stand alone.”
In call-and-response fashion, like worshippers in church, the crowd urged Visnick on. “There are not 101 schools in Oakland, there are 136!” he said, using the figure that includes the city’s charter schools. “Smith not once mentioned in his presentation anything about closing underperforming charter schools!”
More concerns emerged as people spoke during the public comments period. Was transportation ever discussed, for parents without cars? What about kids with special needs? Would the district sell its emptied school buildings to charter schools? To what extent could Smith guarantee that parents will receive their first, second or third choice in the options process.
“It doesn’t take over 50 of you to tell me the same message,” board member Alice Spearman said before the public started lining up to speak. “I see you, Lakeview. I see you. I also know my Madison and Lazear people are out there [in the auditorium],” she said.
Board member Noel Gallo responded to parents’ accusations that the school closure process had not been adequately thought through. “We’ve been meeting every day,” he said. “But there’s no faith in the system. We have to convince our families that the next environment is a better one, or else why bother?”
Board member Jody London asked, “What makes a school—the physical space or the community? Can you have your school in another space? That is really critical to us.” London watched people in the audience shake their heads: No.
In other matters later in the meeting, the board members elected London to be the new president of the school board. OUSD’s next board meeting will be held on Oct. 12 in the Paul Robeson Building at 1025 2nd Avenue.
Photos in this report were taken by Mariel Waloff.