The Oakland school district has no shortage of challenges to contend with, but its leaders lately have spent much of their time, energy and political capital on one contentious project: shrinking the school district down to a more manageable size.
On Wednesday, the board is expected to decide whether to close five elementary schools: Lakeview, near Lake Merritt; Lazear, in the Fruitvale neighborhood; Marshall, in the East Oakland hills; Maxwell Park, near Mills College; and Santa Fe, in North Oakland. Also part of the decision are school mergers, though most of them are well under way.
Oakland operates nearly 100 schools -- almost twice as many as San Jose Unified, which has 5,000 fewer students. Superintendent Tony Smith says the district can't afford to run so many, given current school funding levels in California. The savings generated from the closures, he argues, will make the district stronger.
"We have to figure out how to educate every kid," Smith told people in a packed auditorium last month. "This is about our entire organization and our entire city."
Oakland Unified educates roughly the same number of students as it did in 2008-09, but it must do so with $62 million less; its general fund is 14 percent smaller than it was three years ago.
The district has regained most of its local governing powers after a six-year state financial takeover, but it's still haunted by past mistakes: The district still owes $69 million on its state emergency loans.
But for all of the attention and heartache surrounding the restructuring plan, which would displace about 900 children and dozens of teachers, the projected savings are relatively modest: $2 million a year, less than 1 percent of the district's general fund. To boost that number, the district plans to close or merge more schools the following year, and possibly the year after that.
In other words, the downsizing heartache might be just beginning.
Enrollment has stabilized since 2008, but the number of children attending Oakland's district-run public schools is 30 percent less than it was in 2000. While the proliferation of independently run charter schools contributed to the decline, so did a demographic shift. The number of school-age residents in Oakland dropped by 20 percent between 2000 and 2010, a pattern reflected in other cities, including Chicago and Atlanta, according to U.S. census data.
Some opponents, such as Joel Velasquez, a parent at Lakeview Elementary, have argued that the prolonged uncertainty will drive even more families away from the district and into charter schools, which they predict will open in the empty buildings.
"This is causing a huge mess," Velasquez said. "You're creating unrest within the entire community."
The atmosphere at public meetings had been emotional and, at times, explosive. Jody London, the new board president, called a recess this month after people in the audience began shouting over her. But away from the board room, she said, some of her constituents -- granted, those without schools on the list -- have privately expressed their support for the plan.
"I have certainly gotten feedback from people saying, 'It's about time the board did something bold,' " London said.
Bay Area closures
Jesse Rothstein, a professor of public policy and economics at UC Berkeley, didn't offer an opinion on Oakland's predicament. In general, he said, if a school district is educating far fewer students than it was built for, "At some point, it's going to be an unwise use of resources to keep all the schools running."
Leaders in Union City's New Haven school district reached that conclusion in 2007 and 2008, when they closed two of the district's 13 schools. The decision was difficult, but it saved the district about $1 million a year; nearly all of the students remained in the city's public schools, said the district's public information officer, Rick La Plante.
The $1 million amounted to a tiny fraction of the district's general fund. Still, the savings allowed the school system to hold off on some of the furloughs, class size increases and other programmatic cuts other districts were making, he said.
"Financially, it was what we had to do," La Plante said. "Educationally, it was a wash."
While the South Bay has, for the most part, avoided school closings, other parts of the Bay Area are all too familiar with the often divisive and emotionally draining process. West Contra Costa closed three schools in 2009 -- Castro, El Sobrante and Adams -- and Mt. Diablo Unified closed two this year, Holbrook and Glenbrook.
The process in Mt. Diablo raised concerns about equity, as both of the schools the board closed were in the same low-income North Concord neighborhood.
Since the schools shut down, children have been riding across town to their new schools in packed school buses. Parents have complained that the buses are packed three students to a seat, with some hanging off into the aisle. One student's father filed a safety complaint with the CHP.
To avoid such hardships in their city, Richmond City Council members stepped in to save three schools on the West Contra Costa school district's closure list. The city is providing financial support to keep Grant Elementary, Olinda Elementary and Kennedy High open. City and school district officials are now working on creating a long-term fund for those schools, said Jim Rogers, the council member who led the effort. Rogers said he was concerned that students' academic progress would suffer if their neighborhood schools closed.
"The school closures are pretty serious stuff," Rogers said. "There's some very real evidence that smaller neighborhood schools are better at educating kids."
A 2009 study by the Consortium of Chicago School Research followed thousands of students who attended the elementary schools that closed. The University of Chicago researchers found evidence that their learning was disrupted in the year of the announcement, and that "a large number of displaced students re-enrolled in some of the weakest schools in the system." The few students who attended stronger schools made academic gains, the report found. All other students fared no better than their peers at low-performing schools similar to the ones they had attended.
Smith and his staff have promised that students from closed schools will have the opportunity to enroll in schools at least as academically strong as the ones they're in now, a claim that has been met with some skepticism.
"If you're going to close these schools, I want you to identify where each one of these kids will go to, the API of the school they left and the API of the school they're going to," said Wandra Boyd, a longtime student advocate whose children attended Oakland public schools. "After 20 years in Oakland, I don't believe in fairy tales."
If schools close, displaced families will be allowed to select their top school choices before everyone else in the district, though the district hasn't yet clarified how this will work. David Montes de Oca, the staff member who is coordinating the efforts, has said that each family will receive individual attention.
Still, based on patterns in other school districts, Montes de Oca has estimated that as many as 20 percent of those children might end up leaving the Oakland public schools.
Kristin Smith's first-grade son might be one of them. Smith, a Concord resident with Oakland roots, said she was so disturbed by the school closure process in Mt. Diablo that she enrolled her son at the high-performing Kaiser Elementary School in Oakland, where her husband works. But before the school year even started, she learned that Kaiser might be considered for closure because of its size and location.
"I was like, 'What is going on?' " she said.
The superintendent has since decided Kaiser should expand, instead of close. Still, Smith doesn't know if she wants to put her son through the changes.
"It's still disconcerting," she said. As she and her husband decide what to do, she said, she finds herself wondering: "Do I want my child to be part of the experiment to see what works?"
Maxwell Park Elementary
Santa Fe Elementary
BY THE NUMBERS
16-member police force
if you go
The Oakland school board votes Wednesday whether to close five elementary schools. The meeting starts at 5 p.m. at Oakland Technical High School, 4351 Broadway.