Alameda Consolidates West End Schools By Suzanne La Barre Special to the Planet

Friday January 13, 2006

Berkeley and Oakland aren’t the only East Bay school districts beset by budget woes.  

The Alameda Board of Education voted 3-1 Tuesday to merge two of its elementary schools, a decision that is estimated to save the financially strapped Alameda Unified School District (AUSD) about $300,000. 

The move will help reduce a projected $800,000 deficit the district must recover to achieve solvency in the next fiscal year. The shortfall results from plummeting enrollment district-wide, staff said. 

“Enrollment has continued to decline, which has created schools that are well under their enrollment capacity,” AUSD Superintendent Ardella Dailey said Tuesday. “Schools that are under-enrollment cost the district money that, at this point in time, we do not have and therefore cannot afford.” 

AUSD is a medium-sized urban school district serving more than 10,000 students. Miller and Woodstock elementary schools suffer from some of the lowest enrollment in Alameda, each with fewer than 250 students. When the schools are combined, all 486 students will attend a yet-to-be-constructed campus at Alameda’s former Naval base. The school is slated to open this fall. 

In November, district staff proposed merging a third school, saving the district an additional $300,000. The recommendation was scrapped, however, because it could have led to overcrowding in the new school, staff said. 

At Tuesday’s meeting, Dailey warned that “this does not eliminate the potential of closing the school during the next school year,” if budget problems persist.  

For Woodstock students, leaving their old facility isn’t much of a surprise, since the new school was commissioned exclusively for them several years ago and they had anticipated relocating this fall. But for Miller students, the consolidation comes as a blow. 

“Originally it was a shock to the families to lose the neighborhood school,” said Miller Principal Neil Tam in a phone interview Wednesday. Tam said the school is comprised of a largely mobile population, including Coast Guard and inter-district children, and has often served as stable ground for students who have spent much of their lives in transition. 

Tam tried to look at the positive: “At the same time, the problem with having a small school is that we don’t have the personnel our school needs, so a larger school will pool more resources,” he said. “I think the families understand what that means.” 

Tam said negotiations between the district and employee unions will begin shortly to determine whether or how Miller staff will be reassigned.  

Both Woodstock and Miller are situated in Alameda’s lower-income, ethnically diverse West End, and have a high proportion of ethnic minorities compared to the district average, particularly apropos black students. 

According to 2003-2004 data released by the California Department of Education, AUSD is approximately 14.6 percent black. Miller and Woodstock each have student populations that are more than 30 percent black. 

That, coupled with the fact that research has shown the achievement gap to widen with larger schools, raises questions about the fairness of consolidating the two West End schools, some have said. In response to criticism, district staff have said if they didn’t combine the schools, they would have to make cuts elsewhere—in athletics, the arts, counseling programs and so forth—which would only further exacerbate inequity. 

Enrollment in Alameda schools has been waning for half a decade. Longtime education advocate retired Judge Richard Bartalini, estimates that AUSD has lost more than 500 students in five years, almost entirely from the West End. 

The mass eviction of residents from a multi-family West End apartment complex in 2004 is partly to blame, but accounts for only part of the decline. Gentrification is another possible factor, as the escalating cost of living in Alameda puts families with school-age children at a disadvantage. 

No one has a conclusive answer to why AUSD continues losing students, school officials said. 

“I don’t think I feel comfortable understanding why this district is experiencing that decline,” said immediate past school board president Mike McMahon. “So, moving forward, what I would like to see is a better process gathered around trying to identify and isolate the causes and effects that are occurring within the district for declining enrollment.”