OAKLAND — The Oakland school board has waited four and a half years to take a vote that counts.

That moment has come.

On Wednesday evening, the board will make its first major decision since the 2003 state takeover. But the issue at hand — overcrowding at Hillcrest Elementary School — is so divisive, so complex and so intractable, some of the board members are already talking about putting it off.

"I actually think that no decision is fundamentally a decision," board member Gary Yee said at a special meeting on Wednesday.

Yee was referring to the proposed boundary change that would shrink the attendance lines around the elite K-8 elementary school in Upper Rockridge.

Hillcrest is already over its capacity of 310 students. Unless its middle school is closed or relocated, it will only be able to admit 40 incoming kindergartners each year. The problem is, the district's demographer projects that 50-60 families will be vying for those spots for the next five years.

District staff have proposed moving large portions of the Hillcrest attendance area to Montclair and Chabot, high-performing elementary schools nearby. They say the solution will eliminate the uncertainty that has pitted neighborsagainst one another.

School board member Kerry Hamill, who represents North Oakland's schools, spoke in support of shrinking the boundaries.

"What we owe every family is that when they move into a neighborhood, they know where they can go, and they don't need to rely on a lottery," Hamill said.


But that solution doesn't sit well with everyone. There are the families who invested more than $1 million for a Hillcrest-area home, only to learn they might be assigned to another neighborhood school. There are the parents who might end up with one child at Hillcrest and another elsewhere. There are the property owners who fear a drop in home value.

The proposal also has rankled families and staff at Montclair and Chabot, who say the shift will make their schools more crowded and less able to take students from Oakland's other neighborhoods under Oakland's school choice program.

"It's going to make our school more white, more affluent," Montclair father Josh Newman said, suggesting that Hillcrest phase out its middle school to make room for additional families.

Eliminating the middle school, however, is a wildly unpopular idea among many at Hillcrest — especially those who have already secured spaces for their children. Members of that camp told the board it would be senseless to resolve the crowding problem by eliminating a successful program.

Heather Rascher, whose child is years away from kindergarten, learned shortly after closing on her home that her family might be redistricted to Montclair. Based on the data she's seen, she fears Montclair won't have space either.

"I feel like we're being thrown in educational purgatory," Rascher said.

Rascher suggested a lottery for everyone in the current boundaries. Those who aren't selected, she said, should then be allowed to enroll their children in their second-choice school.

But Shannon Broome, Hillcrest's PTA president and a member of the school's long-range planning committee, urged the board to approve the new boundaries — and soon. "Hillcrest cannot tolerate another year with our overcrowding and enrollment demand unresolved," Broome said, reading a statement by the 15-member committee.

At least three of the seven school board members — Yee, Gregory Hodge and Alice Spearman — didn't sound convinced.

"It would be judicious to put off a decision in the short-term," Hodge said.

In other words, the board's first major decision might be to make no decision at all.