Thomas Ultican: Schools Closings Creating Community Uproar in Oakland
There is chaos in Oakland, California, and Thomas Ultican blogs about the school closings at the heart of it. Reposted with permission.
Alameda County has designated Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) with a “lack of going concern” label. Translation: They are going broke and must follow orders to save their district. However, many Oakland citizens are not ready to genuflect; leaving school board members in a trap. Twenty years of billionaires financing attacks on Oakland’s public school system has created a toxic political environment.
In October 2021, the OUSD board voted to end its policy of permanently closing schools every year. On November 8th – less than 2 weeks later – Alameda County Office of Education (ACOE) Superintendent L. Karen Monroe sent a memo approving the OUSD 2021-22 budget but included a “lack of going concern” designation. The memo also demanded school closures resume and $90 million dollars in budget cuts be made by January 31. Monroe also assigned the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to direct fiscal management, noting “the school district shall follow the recommendations of the team.”
The county claimed seven financial issues: (1) decline in enrollment not budgeted; (2) unrecorded health care liabilities; (3) structural deficits; (4) multiyear projection not reliable; (5) one time funding use not sustainable; (6) past board did not make necessary budget adjustments; and (7) forgoing $10 million in AB 1480 funding.
OUSD refuted all of these charges noting: (1) the district’s COVID enrollment declines were less than most districts; (2) health care liabilities were a onetime charge and not significant; (3) the structural deficits cited are quite small and the board agrees all one time funded positions will need to be ended; (4) acknowledges the need to address the positions funded by one-time sources; (5) November 3, 2021 the board explicitly voted that all positions funded with one-time funds will not carry over to the following fiscal year; (6) this is a new board confronted with a clear, manageable challenge it agrees to resolve and (7) the choice to forgo $10 million instead of closing schools was accounted for in the district’s budget.
The District leadership believes not one of these claims by the county can legitimately be considered a basis for the “lack of going concern” designation. OUSD district-5 Director Mike Hutchinson asserts, “Karen Monroe for five years has had oversight over every budget, and she approved the budgets.” Hutchinson also claims that the district has been working closely with the county and is in better fiscal shape than it has been in years. He asks, “What is new, besides the district’s decision not to close more schools?”
Twenty years ago, the state took over OUSD claiming a financial crisis which has led directly to OUSD becoming the most privatized public school system in California. Then like now, the Bakersfield non-profit FCMAT was brought in to supervise. The state went on to appoint a series of administrators to run the district. The new administrators welcomed charter schools and closed public schools. Concern that this could happen again might explain why three board members have changed their positions on closing schools and are placating Karen Monroe.
Schools proposed to be closed or merged between 2022 and 2024: Prescott, Brookfield, Carl Munck, Parker (K-5), Parker (6-8), Grass Valley, Horace Mann, Korematsu, RISE, Manzanita Community, Westlake, La Escuelita grades 6-8, Ralph J. Bunche, Dewey Academy, Community Day School, Manzanita Community School, Hillcrest grades 6-8.
The Billionaire Created Conundrum
The map of charter schools in Oakland and proposed school closings shows that both are all in the minority dominated flats (the low lying area between the bay and the hills). With all of these closings, residents in the flats may no longer have a traditional public school serving their community.
Much of this can be laid at the door step of the six billionaire “education reformers” living across the bay – Reed Hastings (Netflix), Arthur Rock (Intel), Carrie Walton Penner (Walmart), Laurene Powell Jobs (Apple), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Doris Fisher (The Gap).
Reed Hastings established America’s first charter management organization (CMO) in Oakland. There are now six Aspire charter schools serving Oakland families.
Arthur Rock, Doris Fisher and Carrie Walton Penner have been investing in Teach For America (TFA) and charter school growth in Oakland. Mark Zuckerberg and Laurene Powell Jobs have been pushing education technology as well as TFA and charter schools.
Along with these billionaires, New Yorker Michael Bloomberg and Tulsa billionaire Stacey Schusterman have joined in the spending to sway Oakland’s school board elections.
Oakland’s own T. Gary Rogers established a foundation before he died that continues to be central to the local school privatization agenda. It significantly supports and directs privatization efforts by GO public education and Education78. The City Fund created by Reed Hastings and John (Enron) Arnold recently gave GO and Education78 a total of $5 million (EIN 82-4938743).
This brief outline of the money being spent to privatize schools in Oakland would be woefully incomplete if Eli Broad was not mentioned. Although his direct spending to advance privatization in Oakland has been relatively modest, the four Superintendents and many administrative staff members that he trained and got placed in Oakland are central to OUSD being the most privatized district in California. A key training manual developed at the Broad Center was the “School Closure Guide.”
“Black Hole Mike” Hutchinson observed,
“A lot of these policies were first tried out in Oakland. If you go back and look at the Eli Broad handbook on school closures, a lot of the source information that they used for that report is from Oakland.”
The billionaire spending has resulted in 39 charter schools operating in Oakland today. Nine were authorized by the county, one by the state of California and 29 by OUSD. Using data from the California Department of Education, it can be shown that 31% of the publicly supported k-12 students in Oakland attend privatized charter schools.
It is disturbing that 22 of the 39 schools have a student body made up by more than 90% Hispanic and Black students. Overall 67% of Oakland’s charter school children are Hispanic or Black but only 50% of the residents of Oakland are Hispanic or Black. The privatization agenda has driven school segregation in Oakland to new heights.
The other divisive agenda is gentrification. Ken Epstein is a longtime observer of OUSD and a bay area pundit. He observed,
“Many school advocates view these school closures as a land grab of public property by privatizers. Others see this is a way to force Black and Latino families out of Oakland, making education inaccessible for them by closing the schools in the neighborhoods where they live.”
If a well financed developer could gain control of the flats, the profit possibilities are immense. These concerns are further fed when OUSD board President Gary Yee tells a Skyline High School parent that the school should be closed because the property is too valuable to be used for public education.
Is Closing Schools in the Flats the Only Possible Solution?
In an email to board members, Jane Nylund an OUSD alum, a teacher and high school student parent with a long family history in Oakland stated,
“For 2018, I counted 14 positions at $200K+, including benefits. In 2020, OUSD had 47 admin positions at $200K+ including benefits (Transparent California). And in 2019, many of them got 10% raises, all inclusive, around $20-30K each. While it’s true that other large districts have a lot of admin, OUSD has one of highest paid administrations compared to the rest of the state, at 526% of the state average. It still has its consultants at 325% of the state average. Collectively, those salaries went from around $3M to $10.7M in two years.”
Based on the claims in the OUSD administrations school closing presentation, the salary increases Jane highlights total to a million dollars greater than the projected cost savings from the closures and those are disputed.
VanCedric Williams is a school board Director representing OUSD district-3. In a private email former OUSD teacher Steven Miller reported on a community meeting attended by Williams,
“VanCedrick Williams repeatedly pointed out that OUSD has not looked at any other possible solution than closing more schools. He also notes that there is no real plan, just a stampede to close more schools.”
The OUSD board believed they could afford to keep all their schools open in October. Then L. Karen Monroe from the Alameda County Office of Education threatened them. She is in a position to cause havoc in Oakland. That seems to have intimidated some board members who are now ready to ignore equity for residents of the flats. The case for mass school closings is not well founded. Rather, the evidence suggests market based ideology and gentrification are trumping justice.