OAKLAND -- The Oakland school board on Wednesday night voted unanimously to allow two elementary schools, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits, to operate as independently-run charters.
The decision marked the end of a months-long drama over the fate of the East Oakland schools, whose joint effort to leave the district created a stir -- and was just recently rejected by the school board.
"I think this is one of the best outcomes we could have gotten," said Mari Rose Taruc, a parent leader at ASCEND.
In the end, an agreement between the schools and the district was hailed by both sides as a creative compromise. The deal, which involved the purchase of district services and other provisions, greatly lessened the financial blow to the school system, which -- after years of instability -- has managed to stabilize its finances.
As part of the agreement negotiated in recent weeks, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits will buy a host of custodial, food and professional development services from the district; lease their current buildings at a rate 85 percent higher than required by state charter law; and contribute a comparable amount to the district's massive debt repayment.
The district once projected it would lose more than $826,000 from the charter school conversions, even after the reduced costs of the two schools were taken into account. That estimate has dropped to $48,000.
ASCEND and Learning Without Limits, Fruitvale-area schools, were created as part of the district's small schools movement. That approach to school reform, which began as a grass roots push by parents fed up with overcrowded and low-performing schools, led to the opening of dozens of new schools.
The schools' leaders say that the conditions they were promised have eroded over the years. They argue that district policies and union rules must change to give public schools more control over finances, staffing, curriculum and schedules.
In the fall, the teachers at ASCEND and Learning Without Limits voted to break away from the district and run their schools as charters, managed by the Oakland nonprofit Education For Change. Meanwhile, they said they would advocate for what they call the "four autonomies" throughout the district, a proposal that the Oakland school board is exploring in a special committee.
Oakland Superintendent Tony Smith voiced his support for that proposal on Wednesday.
"What we're talking about is creating the conditions in these partnership schools that we want for all schools," Smith said.
Also in the modified charter application is an unusual provision: Two years from now, ASCEND and Learning Without Limits will determine whether they want to rejoin Oakland Unified.
Larissa Adam, principal of ASCEND, said she will take it seriously.
"The whole reason we're doing this is because we don't have the conditions we need to be successful," Adam said. "If we can get those conditions within the district, there's absolutely no reason we should remain a charter."