HAYWARD -- Oakland families who have been trying to save their closing school by turning it into an independently run charter school won a major victory Thursday.
People began cheering and hugging one another in the Alameda County Office of Education board room as soon as it became clear that they had won enough votes to back their appeal. The county board voted to allow Lazear Elementary School's charter conversion to go forward, effectively reversing the decision made by the Oakland school board in April.
"The show of people here, and the heartfelt things that people have said about their school and their community, I'm just really hopeful," said Yvonne Cerrato, vice president of the county board.
It's unclear whether Lazear will be permitted to remain in its current location on 29th Avenue, near Interstate 880. Gail Greely, the Oakland school district's charter school office director, said at Thursday's hearing that the school -- in the district's opinion -- didn't have the legal right to the location, as it didn't apply for it before the deadline. She didn't say, however, that the district had made a definitive decision about Lazear's placement.
Lazear is one of five elementary schools slated for closure as part of an Oakland school district downsizing plan. But most of the students at Lazear walk to school, and parents said there weren't enough spaces in nearby schools in the Fruitvale area to accommodate the children. Less than half received their first-choice alternative, and only about two-thirds got their top two choices, according to a school district staff report. The students were assigned to 21 different schools.
The Oakland-based Education For Change charter management organization took up the parents' cause, writing the charter school petition on their behalf. Its CEO, Hae-Sin Thomas, said she was moved by the circumstances of the school and the passion of its well-organized parents, who have made headlines for demanding that district leaders give their children a better education. They held a one-day strike in 2010, keeping their children out of school to protest a teacher they said was incompetent and abusive.
"Even if they were assigned to some of the best schools in Oakland, there's something tragic about breaking up this community," Thomas said.
Greely said Thursday that her office was concerned that the school won't be successful as a charter, as it has yet to have a principal in place, and a number of its teachers have already been assigned to other schools.
"Maybe they can pull it off, but that's not what we want for our kids," Greely said. "The standard is quality schools for all of our kids."
But some have suggested that the Oakland school board's decision had more to do with the bottom line -- the loss of per-student revenue -- than any programmatic shortcomings. State law doesn't allow districts to include fiscal considerations in their charter decisions. District staff members noted the fiscal impact but were careful to say that the staff recommendation was not rooted in the finances.
According to the district's fiscal analysis, approving the charter would cost the Oakland school district $1.4 million, even if the school purchased services from the district, as the savings from the school's closure had already been factored into the 2012-13 budget. Superintendent Tony Smith said the conversion would wipe out the savings that allowed the district to give the remaining schools in the district an additional 5 percent to spend, per student.
"Politics drove Lazear to close, and politics drove the question of whether or not Lazear should be permitted to convert into a charter," said Alameda County Board of Education Trustee Philip Ladew.
Thomas said she was hopeful that the Oakland school district would allow the school to remain where it is. She said she would be open to renegotiating a so-called "partnership charter agreement," similar to the one the district now shares with two other elementary schools which recently broke away from the district. The $1.4 million revenue loss projected by district staff members took such provisions into account; without them, the loss could be even greater.
Olga Galaviz Gonzales, one of Lazear's parent leaders, had tears in her eyes after the vote came in. "We're very happy, and our kids are going to be happy," she said. "We know that our kids are going to be on top, academically. That's a fact."