A small group of angry parents, students, and teachers gathered outside Oakland Technical High School last Thursday to denounce the closing and merging of schools, and to publicize a signature-gathering campaign to recall city school board President Jody London.
Never mind the fact that London is already stepping down at the end of the year after 11 years in office, or that a special election could cost the Oakland Unified School District, which already faces a $21.5 million deficit, between $785,000 and $1 million, according to the city clerk’s office.
The activists, who call themselves “Oakland Not For Sale” and have won the backing of the city teachers union, were looking for blood — or accountability, as the case may be. Their efforts were largely in response to the Board of Education’s ongoing efforts to reduce the city’s relatively high number of schools and redeploy those resources elsewhere.
Their discontent and distrust of district administrators is also rooted in the district’s long history of financial troubles, including annual deficits that have prompted cuts and audit findings in recent years that have found fiscal mismanagement by district officials.
“We are doing the recall because it is time for accountability,” said Saru Jayaraman, a district parent and veteran political organizer leading the recall effort against London. “Not just for Jody London but every Oakland school board president to realize their actions will not go without consequences, that there will no longer be school closed, after school closed, after school closed and charters put in their place without consequences.”
In particular, recall advocates were outraged by the impending closure of the Henry J. Kaiser Elementary School campus in the tony Hiller Highlands neighborhood and the planned merger of Kaiser’s well-performing program into the under-performing and under-enrolled Sankofa Academy in the flatlands of North Oakland.
District officials say the move is intended to make a quality program more accessible, but Oakland Not For Sale members see evidence of a broad, national conspiracy by “billionaires” to close regular public schools and replace them with privately run charter schools, which are sanctioned by state law and publicly funded but run by nonprofit entities with some district oversight.
“We need school board members who will stand up to the billionaire privatizers,” railed Jayaraman, who has two children currently attending Kaiser Elementary.
As Jayaraman chanted slogans before a small clutch of reporters, she leaned on crutches, her left leg in a mechanical brace she said she got following the surgery she had to treat the injuries she said she suffered when she and five others were arrested by school district police at an Oct. 23 school board meeting.
Jayaraman and the others taken into custody were among the eight people who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last week regarding the incident, in which officers pushed and hit people with batons after a barricade was breached. The police had come to the meeting in force after protesters stormed the board dais at a prior meeting.
“Watch us show all candidates in November 2020 that they better watch their backs,” said Jayaraman, who also is the co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and president of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley.
To qualify its possibly quixotic campaign for the ballot, Oakland Not For Sale will have to gather 9,236 signatures to force a special election, which would have to occur by mid-July. Recall elections are not allowed within six months of someone leaving office.
“We know what we are doing,” Jayaraman promised, “and believe me, we will succeed.”
The campaign already has raised $10,000, which Jaramayan said came mostly from individual donors and included a “nominal” contribution from the Oakland Education Association, the teachers union, which has endorsed the effort. Saying he was speaking on behalf of the union, veteran Kaiser teacher Steve Neat said the situation is urgent because the board of education is continuing to favor charter schools.
“People are realizing we can’t wait until January of next year to have some new school board members in,” Neat told demonstrators.
London and district officials flatly deny the notion that they want to “charterize” the district. She notes that for years she was the only vote on the board against new charter schools, despite the fact that state law charges school boards with approving charters satisfying various criteria. In any case, said London, who has repeatedly won elections with comfortable margins, a recall election is unnecessary. She long ago vowed that she would leave office after the second of her daughters graduated from Oakland Tech, suggesting that she should be replaced by someone with a child in the district.
Regardless, London said she has received strong support from constituents who think the school board is acting responsibly by reducing the number of schools to save costs and improve services.
“People recognize that schools are really in a bind and the board is making the hard decisions that have really needed to be made for years and years,” said London.
The battle over the future of the Oakland Unified School District will only likely intensify this spring when the district is expected to announce a third round of school closures, mergers, and expansions. The Kaiser-Sankofa merger is just one part of the district’s second cohort of realignments, and a total of five rounds are expected before the planned process is completed over the next couple of years.
Oakland Unified is making these painful changes as it grapples with structural deficits that include rising salary and pension costs and payments on earlier state bailout loans. Compounding the district’s preexisting financial challenges, Oakland Unified granted its teachers an 11 percent pay raise over four years and a 3 percent bonus almost a year ago, after a wildly successful seven-day teacher strike. The teachers also won a five-month pause on school closures, but that period has passed.
Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell has said she’s “tired over having the same conversations and controversies, year after year, over decades,” and to change the narrative Oakland Unified must change fundamentally the way it does business.
“Our biggest hurdle by far is consistently delivering a high-quality education to every student in every school in our district in a sustainable way within our financial means,” she told reporters last year. “The bottom line is that Oakland Unified School District has too many schools for the number of students we serve and our students are not currently receiving the quality education that they need.”
In fact, Oakland Unified operates 83 schools, about twice the number found in similarly sized districts in the cities of Fremont and San Jose. Meanwhile, there are about 11,000 empty desks in district schools, and enrollment is stagnant. And that doesn’t count the city’s charter schools.
After the passage of state Proposition 39 in 2000, California’s charter school movement has continually grown, at first dramatically and later at a slower pace. In the 2018-19 school year, there were 660,000 students enrolled in 1,323 charter public schools, up 5 percent over the prior year. Last year, 16,700 of the city’s 50,000 students, or 26 percent, attended one of 45 charter schools, one of the highest rates in the state. In addition to 33 district-authorized charter schools, there are 12 other charters approved by the county office of education or the state. In total, that’s 128 public or charter schools.
Yet even as the number of schools in the city surged, Oakland Unified’s enrollment was declining over the last 15 years, from 54,000 to 36,000. That resulted in a loss of per-pupil funding, even though school operating costs did not drop proportionally.
The district hasn’t approved a new charter school for several years. OUSD Spokesman John Sasaki pointed to the recent denial of applications from charter operators seeking to establish or expand operations in the city. But, like all California cities, Oakland has had only limited authority to reject charter applications, and charter organizations had the right to appeal such rejections to the county Office of Education and also to the state Department of Education.
Indeed, between 2016-17 and 2018-19, all three appeals of district rejections of charter petitions were successful, ultimately receiving approval from either the county or the state. In total, ten of Oakland’s charter schools are authorized by Alameda County, one by the neighboring Alameda Unified School District, and one by the state.
Yet while school districts have lacked the power to definitively say no to new charter schools, they nonetheless must bear the costs associated with closing down a poorly functioning charter school, or of absorbing students from charters that close mid-year, as happened three times in recent years.
Charter-school advocates insist that charters give parents alternatives to often-inadequate public schools and provide higher-quality programming. Such arguments have clearly been compelling to many in the public. But union officials and others complain that charter schools bleed public schools of resources, cherry pick high-achieving students, and don’t take a fair share of English learners or Special Education students.
Because teachers at charter schools are typically not unionized, unions have long advocated for limits on charter growth, as well as greater accountability for charter operations.
This past year they scored a major win when Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law that for the first time allows districts to consider the financial and academic impacts of applications for new or expanded charter schools, which also must face increased county scrutiny regarding performance. In addition, charters will soon have to justify the need for a new program, though they will still have the ability to appeal rejections of applications to county boards of education and, in some cases, the state Department of Education.
Though the district said at one point that based on the numbers, in theory, it could close as many as 24 schools, officials have taken pains since then to emphasize that they do not intend to shutter so many, and they are clearly nonplussed that the figure has been widely circulated as a possibility.
What Jayaraman and others want is for the district to pause both the Kaiser merger and any other school closures or consolidations in order to explore private fundraising and state funding possibilities and see whether voters in November will approve a ballot measure that would modify Proposition 13 to increase property taxes on businesses, thus raising an estimated $6 billion to $10 billion a year for all California schools. Jayaraman also says the county, which is separate from the schools, should redirect money from a juvenile probation camp to schools.
“Their lack of willingness indicates it’s not about funding. It’s about a charter school agenda,” said Jayaraman.
Yet London counters that the school district cannot afford to wait. For one thing, the district by law must pass a balanced budget in June, she noted.
Fellow School board member Gary Yee agreed, saying that even if voters do amend Prop. 13, which he supports, it will not help solve Oakland’s core challenge of raising teacher pay to match what surrounding districts offer because those districts would also get their share of any new money.
Oakland Unified’s low pay makes it hard for the district to recruit and retain teachers, said school board member Shanthi Gonzales, who voted against the Kaiser-Sankofa merger. The district started January with 20 open teaching positions, she said.
Roseann Torres, the other school board member who voted against the Kaiser-Sankofa merger, said she did not run for school board so she could close schools.
Torres, a personal injury attorney with a history of community activism, is leaving office in January after eight years in office. She said she is sympathetic to many of the “Oakland Not For Sale” group’s complaints, but that a recall of Jody London is not a worthwhile goal.
“It’s not a good use of time, I think,” she said.
Yee can recall the late 1980s when the Oakland district operated some 60 schools for about 50,000 students. He has a more historical perspective than most, having been a teacher, principal, and district superintendent from 1973 to 1990 and also a school board member from 2002 until 2013, before rejoining the board again last year.
The current imbalance in the number of schools, Yee said, can be traced to the early 2000s. During that period, trying to alleviate overcrowding in flatland schools filled with minority students, the district added scores of small schools, a strategy supported by millions of dollars from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The growth of charter schools also picked up steam significantly.
District enrollment dropped precipitously in the half-decade from 2003 to 2008, during which Oakland Unified was in state receivership because of its poor financial condition. Many people consider that state takeover to have been harmful for the district, which got saddled with nearly $100 million in state loans, money the district is expected to finally finish paying back in 2026.
When the state returned control to Oakland Unified in 2008, the Great Recession was kicking in and the overall decline in student-age population combined with the loss of funding due to charter school growth made it clear the district would need to close schools, Yee said.
In 2011, when London was newly president of the board, the district had 101 schools for 38,000 students. The board voted then to shut five elementary schools, eliminate seven schools operating separately on high school campuses, and merge several other schools. Kaiser was seriously considered for closure in that round but was spared.
As with the current realignments, there was great protest, including complaints that the schools being closed served predominantly black and brown kids. District officials argued the changes were needed because of declines in enrollment and a drop in state funding, and to enable more academic opportunities and services for students. Then-superintendent Tony Smith talked of further rounds of cuts that could total as many as 30 schools.
That did not happen. Smith left office in 2013, only to be replaced by Antwan Wilson, who presided over a destabilizing period in which auditors later found budget mismanagement and unauthorized spending. Charter schools also expanded in number.
Wilson, a graduate of the charter-supporting Broad Academy started by billionaire real estate magnate Eli Broad, left the district in 2017 with an unexpected deficit of more than $30 million. He was subsequently forced out of his job as Washington, D.C. schools chief after he skirted enrollment rules there to get his daughter into a particular high school.
In May of 2017, Oakland Unified selected Johnson-Trammell to replace Wilson.
She is seen by Yee and many others as an able, stabilizing force, a native Oaklander who attended city schools and then returned to work as a teacher and principal for more than a decade. Yee and others hope that when Johnson-Trammell’s three-year contract ends in June she will stay on in the position, which has not had a long-term occupant for two decades.
“She is humble and serious and she’s open to a wide variety of conversations and perspectives,” Yee said. “I clearly want her to stay and be successful.”
Torres passionately agreed.
“The public should keep in mind that this is going to be a long process, two to three years,” she said. “We need to keep the superintendent.”
From the moment Johnson-Trammell took the superintendent’s job amid continuing fiscal crisis, she has been working on the school realignment issue through a process dubbed the “Blueprint for Quality Schools.”
Last year the district shut down the underperforming Roots International Academy middle school. In addition, the district merged two other middle schools; and initiated planning for the merger of two elementary schools still to come. At the same time, it expanded two higher-performing schools, one a sixth-through-12th-grade academy, the other a standard high school.
Then in September, in a 5-2 vote, the board approved the Kaiser-Sankofa merger, as well as the merger of Frick Impact Academy and School of Language on the Frick campus, which had 445 vacant student spaces out of 676 available during the 2018-19 fiscal year. Both mergers will happen in May. The district will also expand its Melrose Leadership Academy to occupy two campuses.
Johnson-Trammell has said the goal of these changes is to concentrate resources where they can best benefit students. Sasaki in an interview reiterated that the immediate imperative is to deliver better educational services, with monetary savings will come farther down the road.
Under that rubric, Kaiser’s remote location, small size, and strong performance made it ripe for consolidation with a lower-performing school on an underused campus in a dense neighborhood.
Johnson-Trammell and others insist that Kaiser is not being “closed,” but instead its high-quality programming is being moved to a better location so that it will be more accessible.
“This is really about how do we expand access to quality programs,” said London, pointing out that only 28 of the 270 kids attending Kaiser came from the surrounding Hiller Highlands neighborhood, a wealthy enclave north of Highway 24 near the Berkeley border, while 30 percent lived near San Pablo Avenue in the flatlands of North Oakland. Moving Kaiser to the Sankofa campus means more kids will be able to walk to school, she said. Sankofa had been at half capacity with 189 students.
Even though she did not vote for the merger, Gonzales made the same point. Many people cannot afford the time or expense of traveling up the hill to get their kids to school, and Sankofa is located closer to them, she said.
“This will cut tardies and absenteeism. Not everyone has the ability to commute to take their child to school every day,” Gonzales said.
Yet wounded Kaiser parents are not mollified. They say that Kaiser is currently serving a diverse mix of families from across the city, and that it has performed well academically and should thus not be disrupted. Jayaratham, a resident of District 6, is one of those coming from outside the neighborhood so her kid can attend Kaiser.
Kaiser Principal Dennis Guikema, who will lead the combined Kaiser-Sankofa school, said the process has been “incredibly difficult” for people in the Kaiser community, but he is trying to move on.
Guikema and some teachers and parents from both communities are also working on a design committee to prepare for next year, although one of three spots for teachers from Kaiser remains vacant. Both schools have robust music and arts programs to build on, and Kaiser’s strong social/emotional curriculum will travel, he said.
In addition to programming, Guikema is trying to combine two cultures. Kaiser’s student population was very diverse racially, but many fewer of its kids were eligible for free and reduced-price lunches than at Sankofa. Kaiser also had an active parent-teacher association, where Sankofa had active families but just formed a PTA. Already, there have been barbecues to introduce parents and teachers to one another.
The Sankofa campus is in good condition and spacious enough to accommodate the additional students when three new portable classroom structures are included.
“The Sankofa site is an outstanding facility,” Guikema said. “The facility, the grounds, it’s ripe for a school that will thrive.”
Perhaps the experience of Kilian Betlach, the principal of the Elmhurst United Middle School in East Oakland, offers support for Guikema’s optimism.
Betlach last year oversaw the merger last year of Elmhurst Community Prep and Alliance Academy, two East Oakland schools that had shared the same campus. He was unhappy that there was virtually no support from the district for making the merger happen, but he is excited today because he has an additional assistant principal and more resources for special education, programs for recent immigrants, and electives like art, dance, and computer science.
“When you dig into the numbers and you put it against a backdrop of how we allocate services and supports, it’s hard to not see a need for operating fewer schools,” he said.
Yee said he understands the suspicions about charter schools, but he thinks they are misplaced when applied to the current realignments. The primary issue, he said, is getting the district healthier financially, which in turn will translate into better teaching.
Yee said he was once an ardent opponent of charter schools, but he has realized they are sanctioned by state law and are not going away, so he has become more neutral on the subject and recognizes that the district has to work with them. The district has a good history of closing down charter schools that are not functioning well, he said.
“I was quite fierce in opposition to both small schools and the charter schools movement,” said Yee.
“I respect and appreciate the philosophical point of view of organizations who are more skeptical, but there’s also a lot of misunderstanding and misdirection applied in the advocacy against charters,” he said.
Perhaps as a result of Yee’s evolving views, his 2018 campaign indirectly benefitted from nearly $150,000 in independent expenditures from the independent political action committee Families and Educators for Public Education. That committee was sponsored by the political advocacy arm of the GO Public Schools network, a group that charter critics often assail as an alleged tool of billionaire charter supporters. The committee has received at least $420,000 in recent years from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg along with donations from other noted charter backers.
Thomas Maffai, director of policy and advocacy for GO Public Oakland, insisted in an interview that his organization is neither pro-charter nor anti-charter. “We’re generally agnostic of school type,” he said.
Go Public’s stance is that the quality of education the district now provides is inequitably distributed across the city, and the district’s apparently unsustainable number of schools is only contributing to that problem, Maffai said.
Critics say they have not seen financial proof that the closing and merging of schools will be effective. They also point out that in the past previously closed schools were made available to charter operators — something district officials say was partly a function of state law. In a report submitted last year to the state, district officials explained that they were required to make unused properties available for use by charter schools by Prop 39. The report said that Oakland had 11 district properties occupied by charters at rents that the law mandated be below-market rates. The law also required the district to make space available to charters in other district properties, which is why there are six charter operations co-located in district school schools or offices.
Chela Delgado, an executive board member at the Oakland Education Association, says the district has not been able to say whether the closure of the five schools in 2012 saved money or improved student outcomes. Some studies in the past have shown that closures and mergers elsewhere in the nation have not produced such benefits and have had unwanted effects, she said. Meanwhile, Delgado said, four of five closed campuses from that time, meanwhile, are now occupied by charter schools.
Delgado is a district teacher at Coliseum College Prep Academy teacher, a relatively high-performing middle- and high-school that was expanded last year when it absorbed students from the closed Roots International Academy campus.
She also is the mother of two students at Melrose Leadership Academy, a K-8 school, which has a popular dual-language program that next year is going to be expanded from one to two campuses as part of the realignment.
Delgado is not thrilled about the upcoming Melrose expansion. She is a believer in the small school model that Oakland pursued in the 2000s in a concerted effort to alleviate then-overcrowded school conditions, an approach that she said research shows is effective. She is not in favor of relocating an operation like Kaiser’s that is working well in order to merge it with another school, or of expanding schools that are working well, like Melrose, because she thinks quality can easily be lost as programs become larger.
“The reality is we have a lot of schools that are struggling. Does it improve things when we close and consolidate schools? There is no evidence to support that,” Delgado said.
Yee acknowledged that it is hard to say whether the earlier school closures saved money, but he was sure the streamlining made the district operate better. Board member Jumoke Hinton Hodge agrees.
“For me, it’s always been about right-sizing the district,” said Hodge, who also will be leaving office at the end of the year after her third term. “It feels hard, but it is not arbitrary. No one is enjoying this at all.”
Delgado complains that language about “right-sizing” the district comes directly from charter backers around the nation. But Hodge, who voted to merge Kaiser and Sankofa, counters that the language used by “Oakland Is Not For Sale” members like Delgado echoes “talking points from unions who don’t like charters” that are heard around the country.
Hodge is considered by many to be charter-friendly, though she says she is simply in favor of whatever provides the best education to students. Hodge’s 2016 campaign also indirectly benefitted from more than $90,000 in independent expenditures from the same GO Public political action committee that supported Yee.
Regardless of ruffled feelings, Hodge said she was elected to make the tough decisions: “I don’t want to sound callous, but it’s not a vote,” she said.
One parent with a supporting viewpoint is Lakisha Young, who runs The Oakland REACH, a group that gets funding from wealthy charter backers, but which Young insists is independent and committed to quality education no matter how it is delivered. Oakland REACH backers include prominent names like Walton, Bloomberg, Schusterman, Rogers, and the City Fund.
“We’re in a budget deficit, and operating all of these schools that are under-enrolled and underperforming is not a good idea,” said Young, who has two children in a charter K-8 school and a daughter at Oakland Tech High School.
Young called the Kaiser decision an “anomaly” because it involves relatively well-to-do people, even though it is racially mixed and draws students from across the city.
“The families that suffer the most are black and brown families in the flats,” she said. “Our schools have been getting closed forever and ever.”
Young has been offended by the repeated disruptions of school board meetings by Kaiser parents.
“They wouldn’t be disrupting every board meeting if it was our families,” Young said.
“All the vitriol and the fighting. It’s just been a nightmare. I have never met a person who is complaining who actually has their kids in one of these low-performing schools,” she said. “We have kids who go to prison.”
While many see a new day on the horizon as a result of Superintendent Johnson-Trammell’s leadership, widespread mistrust remains after years of questionable financial decisions at the district level.
“Show us the money, open the books, submit yourself to audit, pause the school closures,” said Alicia Johnson, a parent with two children at Kaiser who was prompted by the district’s “dysfunctional” handling of the merger decision to declare her candidacy to replace London.
Johnson wants to know what the district plans to do with the Kaiser site, which is nestled in a tony neighborhood of million-dollar homes in the hills above Tunnel Road near the Berkeley border.
District officials have said nothing concrete about the Kaiser campus, but various officials have floated possibilities, including building teacher housing.
Johnson faulted the district for spending money to rent office prime space at 1000 Broadway in downtown Oakland when the district has vacant properties elsewhere and a past history of “spending millions more than other districts on administrative bloat” than on students and teachers.
According to the 2018-2019 Alameda County Civil Grand Jury Report, the district had spent more than $12.5 dollars since 2015 for the Broadway office space and strained legal bounds by using school bond money to do so. The district relocated its headquarters there in an arrangement that was supposed to be temporary following a 2014 flood of a prior headquarters location. The district then spent $6 million developing plans for a new headquarters only to abandon the project, the report said.
“Poor financial controls, uncontrolled project budgets, and misuse of school construction bond funds exhibit senior management’s lack of discipline and damages the public trust,” the report said.
Sasaki said that the district has reduced the amount of central office space it uses through waves of layoffs and it has been developing plans to build a new headquarters building. “Being here is not a choice at this point,” he said. Moving is costly and the district wants to do it only once, he said.
Gonzales similarly said the district has cut 380 central office positions over the last several years. In addition, the district has been studying ways to get more rent for properties it owns, and it has increased its Saturday school offerings, which generate income otherwise lost to absences, she said.
Now in her fifth year on the board, Gonzales has a history working for a union and for progressive candidates and initiatives. She joined the school board because she was upset about the rise of charter schools in Oakland and what she saw as people “abandoning” public schools.
Despite her opposition to closing the Kaiser campus, Gonzales also said the narrative that the current school closures in Oakland are motivated by charter interests is misguided.
“I don’t think that is what is driving this process,” she said.
“This is definitely the hardest thing that any school board member has to do because it evokes so much emotion,” Gonzales said. It is, however, “something the school district needed to do a long time ago,” she said.
Serving on the school board has been an education, Gonzales said.
“What I learned is that being on a public school board in California is really hard. People assume you have lots of power, but the fact is you don’t,” she said. “We were elected to administer an austerity system.”
One of the only significant ways Oakland can provide more adequate staffing and student support is by closing schools, she said.
That strategy has come at a personal cost, Gonzales said, particularly in relation to last year’s decision to close Roots International Academy and move the students to higher performing schools, which left some of her supporters feeling betrayed.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but on the other hand it was just a really clear win,” she said. “It caused so much hurt feelings that there are people who just don’t talk to me anymore — and those are people who I considered friends. Doing the right thing is not always easy.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Lakisha Young, the co-founder and Executive Director of The Oakland REACH, a parent-run group committed to empowering public-school families from underserved communities.