Oakland: The Fight Against School Closures Grows

The Oakland School Board’s proposal to shut down or merge 16 schools in Oakland over the next two years was met with a quick and angry mobilization by the Oakland community. The schools threatened are disproportionately in the “flat lands” of Oakland that serve poor working class communities that are predominantly Black, Latino, and Asian. The proponents of this insane plan wanted to push it through in less than two weeks, preventing any meaningful engagement of the communities that would be impacted. But they were in for a shock when Mike Hutchinson, a School Board member, leaked the list to the public.

Since then there has been a wave of activity and resistance throughout the city. Students have walked out of their classes. Teachers have sicked out and made it clear that those who claim the school shut-downs will help increase teachers’ pay are flat out lying. Parents have kept their kids home and have passed out fliers to the community. School communities have held rallies in front of their schools, and on freeway overpasses. Marches and joint rallies have been held between the school communities that faced closure and those schools that are designated to be the so-called “welcoming school sites” where students from the closed schools would be sent. Teachers and staff at schools threatened with closure have defied attempts by principals who tried to silence them. Meetings have been held, bringing together hundreds of people from around the district, to discuss strategy and the challenges faced at the school sites threatened with closures. Thousands of people have attended school board meetings over Zoom. Hundreds of people, from kindergartners to grandparents, to teachers and classified staff have spoken passionately at the two School Board meetings that lasted into early morning hours, defending their schools, despite the efforts by the majority of the School Board to silence the public’s voice.

Perhaps most dramatic and moving, is the hunger strike that began on February 1, by two staff members at Westlake Middle School, Moses Omolade and André San-Chez. The Oakland Education Association’s (teachers’ union) Representative Council voted overwhelmingly to recommend a “rolling strike” proposal throughout the district. The vote for a strike will be voted on by the membership in the coming days.

The community pressure has had some impact on Oakland politicians. Before the final vote on February 8, four Oakland Council members put forth a resolution to prevent school closures, instead calling for the State of California to forgive the $21.5 million that remains of the $100 million loan that was imposed by the state in 2003, and also to change the funding formula that penalizes districts when students are absent. The Alameda County Board of Education (Oakland is in Alameda County) passed a resolution condemning school closures and the undemocratic process that OUSD has engaged in. But so far Governor Newsom and Tony Thurmond, State Superintendent of Public Education, have turned deaf ears to the community’s requests for a meeting and for state financial assistance.

Not surprisingly, there have been attempts to divide and weaken the movement. At the last minute with no prior notice, two Oakland School Board members introduced an amendment to the closures resolution that whittled down the number of schools threatened with closure and changed the timetable for when some of the closures and mergers would take place. While over 1800 people attended the School Board meeting, and over 300 children and adults spoke against the proposal (with not one person speaking in its favor) the School Board voted 4 to 2 to shut down nine schools and merge two. But while they pulled off their maneuver, thousands of people in Oakland, from kindergarten students to grandparents, also voted — with their feet — to say,

“Hands off our schools!” “No closures, no mergers.”

California is the 5th largest economy in the world. The money exists to cover the costs of Oakland public schools. There is a budget surplus of more than $45 billion! The state has spent $22 million alone just for a Super Bowl ad this weekend.

The struggle to keep the school doors open may not be easy, but it is winnable. But it will take an even larger, more organized and continued mobilization by Oakland parents, students, teachers and staff to win this fight. All working people in the Bay Area should do whatever we can to actively participate and support this struggle. Education should be a right, not a privilege!

Excerpts from the Oakland School Board meeting of February 8. 2022 (for full meeting click here)