OAKLAND — The Oakland Unified School District will close seven schools, merge two others and cut grades from two more over the next two years, the district board of directors decided in a meeting that stretched for nearly nine hours Tuesday into early Wednesday morning.

[vc_row][vc_column][us_carousel post_type="ids" ids="260184, 260250, 107361" orderby="post__in" items_quantity="3" items_layout="11024" columns="3" items_gap="5px" overriding_link="post" breakpoint_1_cols="4" breakpoint_2_cols="3" breakpoint_3_cols="2"][/vc_column][/vc_row]
{ "slotId": "7483666091", "unitType": "in-article", "pubId": "pub-9300059770542025" }

The vote came after district officials, under pressure from the state and county to create a long-term plan for financial success, presented to the board last week a plan to close, merge or reduce 16 schools, starting at the end of this school year.

The district administration had suggested closing Prescott Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary, Parker K-8 School, Brookfield Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary and Community Day School at the end of the school year and merging RISE Elementary with New Highland Elementary, Westlake Middle School with West Oakland Middle School, and Ralph J. Bunche High School with Dewey High School. Meanwhile, La Escuelita would be turned into an elementary school only and lose its 6-8 grade levels.

In the 2022-23 academic year, the district proposed closing Horace Mann Elementary and Korematsu Discovery Academy, merging Manzanita Community School and Fruitvale Elementary, and closing grades 6 through 8 at Hillcrest School.

Instead, after a week of intense community protests that have included walkouts, rallies and hunger strikes by two middle school staffers, the board voted Tuesday to take Prescott off the closure list entirely,  put off the closures of Brookfield, Carl B. Munck and Grass Valley elementary schools until next school year, and reduce the mergers to just that between RISE and New Highland.

Board directors Sam Davis, Aimee Eng, Gary Yee and Shanthi Gonzales voted in favor of the plan, while Clifford Thompson abstained and Mike Hutchinson and VanCedric Williams remained adamantly opposed, with Hutchinson continuing to loudly critique the board for “declaring war on the community” until the virtual meeting abruptly closed near 1 a.m.

[vc_row height="auto" width="full" css="%7B%22default%22%3A%7B%22margin-left%22%3A%220%22%2C%22margin-top%22%3A%220%22%2C%22margin-bottom%22%3A%220%22%2C%22margin-right%22%3A%220%22%2C%22padding-left%22%3A%220%22%2C%22padding-top%22%3A%220%22%2C%22padding-bottom%22%3A%220%22%2C%22padding-right%22%3A%220%22%7D%7D"][vc_column][us_page_block id="48000"][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The students who would be most affected by the closures are Black and Latino, according to demographic data provided by the district.

Many school families, school staff and community members have contended that school officials at the local and state level have made unjust decisions to shutter neighborhood schools in Oakland in the last two decades, and that the vote to close schools that serve so many Black and Latino students has serious implications for the success of those students.

The district didn’t officially notify families whose schools could be closed or merged until late January, which has drawn ire from school families caught off guard by the announcement. They say that the district hasn’t allowed students and families to have enough time to process the closures or properly weigh in as a community, something that Williams and Hutchinson echoed repeatedly during Tuesday’s meeting and in the days leading up to it.

Westlake Middle School performing arts teacher Maurice Andre San-Chez and community school manager Moses Olanrewaju Omolade launched a hunger strike over the closures last week, noting that the district’s decision to close the schools comes after the severe impact of COVID-19 was extra harmful.

“The strategic exclusion created by the board’s rushed, 10 day timeline, absolute lack of community involvement and inconsideration for constituents is insulting and contradictory to the goals you claim to be aiming to achieve,” they wrote in a letter to the board.

On Tuesday, Omolade was taken to the hospital after eight days without solid food, but said before leaving the Westlake campus that day, “I put my body on the line. … This is for the children.”

In a press release, district officials acknowledged that it “knows this is a painful topic for so many people because of how vital schools are to their surrounding communities, and how important a place they hold for students, staff, and families.”

“At the same time,” the release notes, “the District faces an uncertain financial future in its present state after years of declining enrollment and budget reductions and other adjustments.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, the district’s chief business officer, Lisa Grant-Dawson, said the district is trying to navigate its long-term financial picture as it faces potential decreases in funding due to enrollment declines.

“We will be able to sustain this year but we’re not quite sure about the next few years,” she said.

Over the last 20 years, the district has lost about 15,000 students, according to the district’s data. The district predicts it will have 19 elementary schools with fewer than 304 students, making them financially unsustainable, according to district documents.

District Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammel said during a hearing last week the district has continued to shift money around and use one-time funds to cover its budget shortfalls. Closing some of the schools would allow it to more deeply invest in the remaining ones, she said.

The board already voted in January to cut $40 million from the district’s budget through layoffs, elimination of vacant positions and other measures. And last week after the school closure hearing, it cut the equivalent of almost 200 full-time positions, which will result in some layoffs involving various support staff from library technicians to classroom aides.

The district is facing intense pressure to make substantial cuts after the state ruled in December that the Alameda County Office of Education could intervene in the budgeting process because it had rejected an option of closing schools last fall.

Last week, the district’s financial consultants said savings from the closures and mergers could range from about $4 million to almost $15 million, but there was no data presented Tuesday about how much money closing and merging the fewer number of schools would save. Oakland Unified’s budget is close to $700 million.

Check back for updates on this developing story.

Staff writer Kayla Jimenez and staff photojournalist Ray Chavez contributed reporting.