OAKLAND — Hundreds of people flooded the Oakland Technical High School auditorium in North Oakland on Wednesday night to urge the school board not to shut down more than a dozen schools just to save money.
They didn't have to say a word. From his seat on the stage — aptly, under a bright spotlight — school board President David Kakishiba announced that what they feared would not happen.
"It's simply not the case that we'll be closing schools on a big scale tonight or in the future," Kakishiba said, prompting cheers from the crowd.
Kakishiba and other school officials apologized to the public for leading them to believe that the district would try to solve its fiscal woes by closing up to 15 schools, a scenario explored in a staff presentation taken to six community meetings last month.
"I just want to apologize for whatever and however that came about," Kakishiba said, adding, "That's not the path this school board or this school district is taking."
Despite the palpable sense of relief in the audience — which thinned, considerably, by the time the board actually discussed how the district might reduce costs and draw more funding — the school system faces huge fiscal challenges.
This year, the district's budget was balanced for the first time since the state takeover, but schools made deep cuts. And, because of the state's economic crisis, Oakland is bracing for another round in the year to come. Another nagging problem is its shrinking enrollment: The district has lost some 15,000 students in the past eight years, as well as the state funding that followed them.
To add to the financial stress, teachers and other employees are negotiating new contracts with the district. The need for pay raises — which would cost millions of additional dollars — has been widely recognized.
Some of the teachers, students and parents at the meeting offered their own suggestions for how to make ends meet, from improving attendance and aggressively recruiting more students to cutting central administrative office costs and persuading the state to forgive some of the district's huge debt.
In 2003, the state issued Oakland Unified School District a multimillion-dollar emergency loan and stripped the school board of its governing authority — powers that the board is in the midst of regaining.
While the board agreed not to close a large number of schools for cost savings, they did not say that they wouldn't close any schools — although some board members said that all closures should be off the table. Instead, the board agreed that district staff should continue monitoring all schools, especially those that are struggling academically and have low enrollment, as staff members have in the past.
In addition to academic and enrollment considerations, however, staff will look at the schools' neighborhoods. In the past, a large number of schools in predominately African-American areas have been targeted for closure, and school officials said they want to make sure the closures don't affect some communities more than others.
Shawnda Payton, who came with her daughter Brooklyn, a student at Fremont Federation's Media Academy, said it all sounded a bit vague to her. Still, she said, she came to the meeting very worried and anxious, and she left relieved.
"I was nuts at first, but now I'm OK," she said. "I can breathe now, because my daughter loves her school."
Reach Katy Murphy at 510-208-6424 or firstname.lastname@example.org.