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Oakland School District Trustees Release Counterproposal to Downtown Property Sale

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday August 18, 2006

Oakland Unified School District trustees dramatically changed the debate over the district’s downtown properties this week, introducing a proposal to build a “new, permanent, state of the art education center” on the 8.25-acre property currently occupied by the district’s administration building and five educational facilities. Under a resolution drafted by veteran school board trustee Noel Gallo, the new facilities would house a kindergarten through high school program, the two early childhood development centers currently on the property, and the district administrative offices. 

Meanwhile, Oakland residents continued to criticize the original proposal by an east coast development partnership to buy the properties and put up high-rise condominiums, with Oakland attorney Barbara Ginsberg telling board members at a public hearing this week that “We’re like the cellphone commercial; citizens of Oakland are standing behind you in opposition to this sale.” 

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell is currently in negotiations to sell the OUSD downtown property to east coast developers TerraMark/UrbanAmerica, who plan to put five high-rise luxury condominium towers on the site along with commercial facilities. O’Connell has the authority to sell the school under the 2003 state legislation that authorized the state takeover of the Oakland Unified School District. Under that legislation, the Oakland school board has no legal power to halt the sale. 

Sale of the Oakland school properties to TerraMark/Urban America has generated opposition from several organizations and leaders in Oakland, including six of the seven OUSD trustees and all eight members of the Oakland City Council. 

On a motion by trustee Gary Yee during a hearing Wednesday night on the proposed OUSD property sale, trustees tabled Gallo’s proposal until the third and last property sale hearing on Sept. 6. Yee said following the meeting that he requested putting off a vote on the proposal for procedural reasons. “We promised at the beginning of the property sale hearing procedure that board would make its recommendation at the close of the third hearing, so it was premature for us to take a position before that,” Yee said. In addition, Yee requested that Gallo’s proposal be posted on OUSD’s website “so that other groups around the city can read it, comment on it, and consider it for adoption themselves.” 

Gallo’s proposal also included a resolution putting the board formally on record opposing the property sale, citing the facts that there is currently no appraisal of the fair market value of the downtown properties, replacement costs of the schools and administration building currently on the property would have to be borne by the district and not the developers, and that expanded school facilities are needed in the area due to projected population increases. Gallo said that the construction would be eligible for funds under Measure B bond funds recently passed by Oakland voters, with La Escuelita already approved for $22 million in construction money from the earlier-passed Measure C construction bond. 

The board proposal came only days after TerraMark/UrbanAmerica proposed modifying their original development proposal to include space for Met West High School and La Escuelita Elementary School, which are currently located on the downtown properties. 

Under TerraMark/UrbanAmerica’s original plans, Met West and La Escuelita would have had to relocate their facilities, along with Dewey High School and the Yuk-Yau and Centro Infantil early childhood development centers. Met West and La Escuelita supporters packed the first public hearing on the property sale last month, arguing that the two schools should not be moved from the downtown site. OUSD interim administrator Kimberly Statham, who replaced the departed Randolph Ward this week, said that the developers “made significant changes in their plan as a response to comments at the first hearing.” 

Under that proposal, TerraMark/UrbanAmerica would still purchase the entire 8.25-acre parcel, but would lease an acre back to the district at $1 per year for the purpose of housing the two schools. 

At Wednesday night’s hearing, board trustees and members of the public said that the developers’ concessions were not enough. Representatives of the developers attended last month’s public hearings on the proposed sale, but were not in attendance at Wednesday’s hearing. 

Trustee Alice Spearman called it “disturbing that there was no other option than for Dewey to be relocated.” Spearman said that the sites where the district is considering relocating Dewey “would not be accessible to students from deep East Oakland. It would not be accessible to students who look like me. Most students at Dewey look like me.” Spearman is African-American. Dewey, an alternative high school of 280 students, has a student population that is 65 percent African-American. 

Dewey principal Hattie Tate told trustees that “Dewey should be centrally located,” and added that “like other taxpayers, I am appalled that we would destroy an $8 million school in less than five years to give developers a chance to build more empty nest condominiums.” 

Dewey’s current campus on the downtown site was completed in 2005 with Measure C bond money. 

TerraMark/UrbanAmerica’s concession to retain Met West and La Escuelita on the property also drew fire from speakers at Wednesday’s meeting, with trustees Dan Siegel—who opposes the sale—and Terry Hammil—the lone trustee supporting it—both saying that one acre was not enough for the two schools to operate on. 

And Leslie Santiago, a senior at Met West, told trustees “this is our land. The little that we have left is our land. Why should we have to go and find more land for our school? It’s clear that these developers don’t have any idea what is good for Oakland. We shouldn’t have to get the little scraps that are left from their proposal.” 

Another speaker, La Escuelita adult volunteer Grace Cooper, said that La Escuelita deserved more attention in the proposal. “We don’t want our children to be an afterthought,” Cooper said.