OAKLAND (KPIX) — The 2019-2020 school year could be the last for Kaiser Elementary School in Oakland as the Oakland Unified School District plans to merge it with Sankofa Elementary. Parents and other concerned people attended a meeting Saturday convened by the district.
“There has not been a meeting, that I’m aware of, in North Oakland like this,” said Jody London, a member of OUSD school board whose district includes both schools.
A meeting room at Claremont Middle School was packed and a professional facilitator tried get attendees to focus on criteria for the school board to use when making school-closure decisions.
Aiden Sutton’s son Travis has attended Kaiser for two years and he’s happy there.
“Really really lovely people, I’ve met so many fabulous people,” Sutton says of the school.
He thought Travis would attend Kaiser for the next four years.
“Four months ago, we get notice out of the blue that Kaiser’s going to close. I said ‘what are you talking about? Why are you closing a place that works?'”
The problem, according to London, is too many schools.
“If you look at the number of schools that we operate for the number of students, we operate twice as many schools as districts with comparable enrollment. That is the challenge.”
Kaiser, with 268 students in a facility built for 283, is small enough to consolidate.
“When I go to statewide meetings and I meet people from other districts and I say, ‘I’ve got a school in my district that’s 200 kids,’ they’re like ‘Are you kidding me? How can you do that? Aren’t you gonna close it? Aren’t you gonna merge it? How can you afford to keep that school open?'” London explained. She said she wants to use “economies of scale to be able to offer more to students.”
“We don’t have too many schools in Oakland. We have too many charter schools,” counters Mike Hutchinson, co-founder of Oakland Public Education Network.
He says when the state took over the district from 2003-2009, charter schools were allowed to flourish, creating a glut of schools.
“We have 44 charter schools that have been imposed on top of our public education system, so now they’re coming back and telling us we have too many schools,” Hutchinson said.
The OUSD really wants to close schools so it can sell or lease the land they’re on, says Hutchinson. London says real estate is an issue.
“We as a district own a lot of property and we have opportunities under state law to enter into longterm leases or sell our property to help pay down our debt,” London said, while noting that the state still withholds $6 million in funding per year to repay the state for years of receivership.
One option the district is considering for the real estate is housing for teachers.
It’s hard for some to trust OUSD with a big real estate undertaking given its past financial performance.
Last year, despite being told there was a budget deficit, “at the end of the year and they found they had made a mistake and we actually ended 2017-2018 with a $30 million surplus,” says Hutchinson.
This year’s budget was approved in June 2018 but, three months later, a budget update revealed “expenditures had shot up by over $60 million … with no vote from the school board and no explanation on what that money’s being spent on.”
To make matters worse, Hutchinson says “In the last six weeks the two top financial budget people within OUSD, the CBO and the CFO both resigned so we have nobody left in the district internally to even create the budget a budget that needs to be approved by the June 26 school board meeting and no one has even seen what the budget is going to be for next year.”