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Oakland Activists Call for School Closure Moratorium

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Tuesday June 05, 2007

A revived and newly energized movement to restore local control to the Oakland public schools held several hours of testimony from Oakland residents on Friday evening calling for an end to the state school takeover of Oakland Unified School District and a moratorium on school closures in the district until that time. 

Full control of OUSD was taken over by the State of California in 2003. Since that time, the Oakland public schools have been run by a state administrator hired by State Superintendent Jack O’Connell, with the elected school board stripped of all power and functioning without pay, in an advisory capacity only. The legislation authorizing the takeover gives O’Connell broad discretion in deciding when to return local control, and O’Connell has refused to give a timeline as to when that will happen. 

Just over a year ago, the Oakland local school control movement appeared stalled. 

But in May of last year, after O’Connell announced he was working on a deal to sell more than eight acres of downtown area property owned by the district—including the administrative headquarters and five schools—to an east coast developer, the momentum shifted. An ad hoc committee to restore local control—made up of local activists, educational professionals, and officeholders—formed to fight the property sale, eventually leading to a February announcement by O’Connell that the sale is dead. 

Meanwhile, newly elected District 16 Assemblymember Sandré Swanson (D-Oakland) fulfilled a campaign promise by introducing legislation immediately after his swearing in, calling for an immediate return to local control of the Oakland schools. Swanson’s AB45 was later modified to put power over local control in the hands of the semi-private school intervention Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance Team, taking it out of the discretion of the state superintendent. AB45 has passed two assembly committees, Education and Appropriation, and is scheduled for a vote on the assembly floor this week. 

Last week, buoyed by the change in momentum, school board members agreed to ask OUSD State Administrator Kimberly Statham to put a resolution on the board-state administrator meeting agenda calling for a moratorium on school closures. 

Board member Chris Dobbins, who introduced the resolution at the request of local organization Education Not Incarceration, stressed that he did not want to rule out an OUSD school board ever closing an Oakland public school; he only wanted such closures held off until the school board regains control over the operation of district activities. In addition, at the request of board member Noel Gallo, the discussion on the school closures is expected to include a broader discussion on the financial and enrollment situation in the Oakland public schools. Gallo said he was offering that inclusion in anticipation of the board beginning to take on a larger role in setting school policy. 

It was in that atmosphere that Friday’s meeting was called by the ad hoc committee to end the state takeover. Oakland Education Association teachers union president Betty Olsen-Jones, the convener for the meeting, said the ad hoc committee had gone dormant late last year, but members decided to revive it after a dramatic February board meeting presentation by representatives of the East Oakland Community High School. After an announcement by the state administrator that EOC was scheduled for closure at the end of the school year, faculty, students, and parents marched eight miles from the school site on the old Kings Estate Middle School campus in the East Oakland hills to the board meeting on Second Avenue near the lake, and then presented more than two hours of emotional testimony, asking that the state administrator rescind the closure order. 

EOC is still slated for closure this month. 

On Friday, with Olsen-Jones called EOC “the poster child for problems under the state takeover,” many of the residents providing testimony were EOC students or parents. 

“When they closed my school, they told me I could get my first choice in any school I wanted in the district,” EOC student Leonard George Jr. said. “But I can’t get my first choice, because my first choice is East Oakland Community High School.” 

Besides Olsen-Jones and several school board members, panelists listening to testimony included Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, Assemblymember Swanson, Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson, and representatives of Congressmember Barbara Lee and several local school-based unions and organizations. 

Organizers of the meeting had scheduled a time for the introduction of resolutions at the end of the meeting. But after public testimony took the meeting more than an hour over schedule, Olsen-Jones told gatherers, “I haven’t heard anyone tonight say they were in favor of keeping state control, or closing schools, so I think we can go on record as saying this body is in favor of a return to local control and a moratorium on school closures.” 

There was a unanimous showing of hands.