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Will the wrong schools be targeted for closure?

UPDATE: The Oct. 8 board meeting will be held at Oakland Technical High School, 4351 Broadway, instead of at the administrative offices on Second Avenue. The public portion of the meeting starts at 5 p.m.

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This the third year that I’ve covered Oakland schools for the Tribune, and I’ve seen three rounds of school closures (or potential closures). But this one is different.

I went to a community meeting tonight at Montera Middle School, one of six sessions about the district’s shrinking budget and the prospect of closing schools.

When I walked back to the parking lot with Kirsten Vital, OUSD’s chief of community accountability, Vital made it clear that what’s happening has nothing to do with the “Portfolio Management” reform model of years past (in which the district evaluated its schools — including their enrollment — and decided whether to support them, redesign them, open a new school from scratch, or simply shut them down).

This time, it has to do with money. The district is losing hundreds, if not thousands, of students each year, and the millions of dollars that follow them. Top administrators say the district will go broke again, under the status quo. They also think they’ll be able to save $2 million to $6 million a year by closing five to 15 schools.

But how to choose?

In the recent past, people at high-performing or intensely popular schools like Kaiser Elementary, Life Academy, or MetWest wouldn’t be panicking, wondering if they would end up on The List because their enrollment fell below a district cutoff.

But under this plan, it seems, no school is automatically off-limits simply because it’s successful. If its enrollment is under 300 — or whatever number the board sets, if it agrees on a number at all — its fate will be weighed against the criteria the school board sets Oct. 8.

I wonder whether the projected savings of $2 million to $6 million takes into account the potential loss of students from the system because of the school closures. Does it presume that 100 percent of students at a shuttered school will stay in OUSD? Half? How many kids stayed in the system the last time around?

What do you think of the proposed criteria? What would you add, and what would you take away? Do you think some closures could be in the district’s long-term interest, or that there’s a better way to help it thrive and draw new families? Can the district afford to wait that long?

image from RJP Photography’s site at flickr.com/creativecommons

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Parent Cynic

    It is apparent that OUSD is taking a purely short-term approach to cost-cutting and potential school closures. It has less than no regard for — it seems to actually disdain — looking at the long-term effects of the decisions that it intends to take in this go-round of closures.

    It doesn’t seem to understand that it needs to not only keep kids (and their families) in public school, but in order to get out of this hole that it has dug for itself over years of mismanagement and escalating costs, it must also draw new students into the system. Not only must OUSD maintain its student numbers in order to survive, but it must increase them in order to get more money from the state. Does anyone in OUSD realize this?! Closing yet more schools and consolidating more schools will result in more kids leaving OUSD — either going to charters, going private, or leaving this dysfunctional district altogether.

    I too attended one of these “right-sizing” meetings and I can’t begin to tell you all of the things that I found troubling about OUSD’s approach. A few examples:

    How silly is it to determine that there is one right number for the size of a school? Even worse, apparently that number is based on one academic study commissioned by OUSD. Great. Apparently all schools and all situations are created equal with regard to optimum number of students, so any school below that number of students is suspect. How can this one size fits all model be true? Moreover, I guess the last 10 years of small school policy was all just a big mistake? And I guess that the class size reduction movement and money is just out the window and no longer relevant?

    At the meeting I attended, one person noted that the flight from OUSD schools seems to have levelled off and the person was wondering if OUSD knew why this was. The OUSD spokesperson owned up that OUSD has no idea, but they feel that everyone who wanted to leave OUSD has done so by now. Good luck with that reasoning. Close some high-performing schools or popular ones or really close any more schools at all and watch the flight to other alternatives escalate!

    One person in my session asked whether more foundation money could be spent on general day to day expenses, thus freeing up some money. The OUSD spokeperson was dismissive, noting that foundations don’t like to fund such generic things. Has OUSD even tried?

    Another person noted that with the millions of dollars that OUSD spends on consultants every year, it could probably keep open numerous schools instead. No response by OUSD. I wonder how much money was spent on the Expect Success campaign?

    Another person in my session noted that to get families back in underutilized schools, maybe OUSD needs to provide something special that the community values (for example what SF Unified is doing with arts schools or the Mandarin immersion program at a formerly unpopular school that has turned it into a popular one) to get families back into those schools. Again, the OUSD spokesperson was dismissive, stating, “Well, those solutions don’t work for Oakland because they don’t save money; those programs cost money.” What kind of short-term superficial reasoning is that?!

    Worse, of course, is that this will certainly not be the last round of closures that will occur. Without increasing the amount of students in OUSD, the district will continue to lose money as costs escalate. What will their answer be to that next year? More closures?

    OUSD isn’t going to try to do anything to keep kids in its schools or give families a reason to come back into the system. It was apparent that OUSD has its mind made up to just close schools and not consider other options. Yes, the financial situation is dire. But closing schools on the basis of a ridiculous “optimum” number is offensive. Why can’t they see that they need to give the families of this city a reason to continue in its schools even if it costs some money to do so. Where is the long-term planning and strategy?

  • OUSD for ME

    I too attended the Montera meeting about closing schools. As an educator, an OUSD parent,and one who believes in schools being the bedrock of our communities and the communities being the foundation of our schools ( we both need each other) I was appalled and somewhat dismayed at the contentiousness of the meeting last night.

    What is blatantly and sadly obvious is the fact that OUSD, as well as most school districts in our state, especially but our nation as well, is in a financial crises.

    This crisis parallels the crises in our nation, which of course parallels the crises within our homes and our personal financial situations. In our homes, when there are financial troubles, we tend to make cuts, sometimes drastic cuts. We stop going to the movies, stop going out to dinner, get rid of the Cadillac Escalade, reduce other excesses, and batten down the hatches to make other financial decisions that some family members dislike.

    In order to keep the family afloat those cuts are sadly and disdainfully made. If we look to our schools as community or even as family, we too can recognize that cuts have to be made.

    The purpose of the meeting last evening as I saw it was to garner community/family understanding, support and suggestions for making these tough decisions. What I witnessed however, was grandstanding on the part of many (especially the loud teacher from Kaiser) who are ultimately frightened about what will happen to their school and their jobs.

    Kaiser has done an extraordinary job working hard with their students and maintaining high API scores. They are due city-wide Kudos!!!!

    Using a community-wide thinking perspective, why not look into options such as consolidating Kaiser and Chabot Elementary schools. Together these schools have an average API of about 886 and very strong PTA groups. For the good of the community, why can’t these two schools consolidate? This of course is an unexplored thought- but one not explored in the contentiousness of last nights meeting.

    If we approach these issues from a community perspective, and not an us(the school) versus them( the district) perspective we can realize that we need to make decisions based upon what is in the best interest of the whole group(district/community at large) and not necessarily what is in the best interest of the individual( school/teacher/ student).

    What I witnessed last night, I am sad to say was reminiscent of a gang melee over territory. As Oakland residents, we all have a stake in the schools but we cannot build community if we are selfish and fearful.

    I appreciate the districts decision to hold these meetings to get community buy-in although I am not sure of the quality of the conversation when we are all pitted against each other. The rote and perfunctory approach of the interim superintendent must be transformed to one which inspires the community to come together to solve a very difficult situation and not further permit or evoke discord within the community.

    Finally, if and when some schools are closed the community will regroup and be successful. Some will remove their children from OUSD and many will stay.

    OUSD must build of culture of real, measurable and equitable community collaboration to solve problems and move all of our children to academic excellence.

    “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion”
    Ethiopian Proverb

  • Anon

    Why not look at some alternate models for “right-sizing” schools? For instance, if Kaiser is successful with 250 students and you need 300 to be efficient, why not look at ways to add two additional classrooms there, if campus size allows? (Maybe it doesn’t—I don’t know much about the school.) I do agree with Kerry Hamill’s point that the cost-saving strategy should be broad and should look at everything, but you simply can’t get around the fact that OUSD has lost 16,000+ students in ten years, and does need to close some (more) schools to better match capacity to demand. We’re paying for empty seats right now. Ideally, though, these should not be the high-performing schools for the reason Katy notes—those seats are full, and when you close the school, not all of those kids will stay in the district, so you’re compounding the problem. Instead, look at closing underenrolled low-performing schools, and channel additional resources into those neighborhoods (and into the schools those students are redistricted to) in other ways. There’s obviously a huge equity issue wrapped up in that, but OUSD has a rocky reputation in the East Bay as it is—closing the schools in high demand seems like a huge strategic error if the goal is ultimately to increase enrollment and confidence in the system.

  • political corrector

    I just have one point to make, and then I’ll step out of this blog world that I obviously do not belong in…

    How is it that charter schools, who get less money, pay higher prices due to their peudo small business status in comparison to the district, and do not have access to city bond measures stay afloat?

    Perhaps, its time to face the music and realize that there should be more charter schools.

  • Irene

    I like the idea of working with the state to forgive the remaining debt. Someone brought this up at the community meeting that I attended (at Claremont). I believe there is reporting by Katy Murphy (and others?) that documents that the state-appointed administrators have not done better to pay back what we owe. $2 million (or was it $5 million) per year is spent on interest/principle for this ongoing debt.

    I also think the Broad Foundation should help out directly financially. It seems the executives are following his model for reorganizing and setting up benchmarks (color coding and what not).

    maybe it could thought of as our own little bailout

  • Art

    For Political Corrector—most charter schools have outside funding to supplement state funding. Often it’s because they have a hook—innovative approach that a foundation is willing to fund, etc. One argument says that more charter schools could lead to more outside investment in city students, but most funders tend to see their contributions as short-term to get the school off the ground, which is why some run into financial obstacles when seed funding dries up. I’ve worked in charter schools and have seen some great work, but tend to think they’re most valuable when they’re being used to model best practices that an entire district will ultimately adopt if they work, not when they’re being used as a permanent alternative to district schools. That said, there are several in Oakland that are great models. (In fairness, there are also Oakland district schools that present some innovative alternative models, too—Lincoln, Tilden, Hillcrest, others.)

  • http://www.monteskewed.blogspot.com Monte

    I echo the idea about “right-sizing” our schools. I’m a proud parent of a Kaiser student, dedicated and devoted to a school that in my opinion most accurately represents the diversity of our city population and pro-actively seeks to not just expect but to ensure excess. There is a financial crisis. That’s a given. And I wonder why we do, as many other comments highlighted, retreat into fear and territory protection.

    Filled with anxiety that the school I fought so hard to get my child into may be closed down, I react with mistrust of the district myself. As a middle class family limited by the large mortgage we pay for a house next to a failing school we don’t have the option to enroll in a private school to ensure that our child will be at reading level in 5th grade. Yet the threat of public school closures, in particular the one we found to help us resolve the issue of facing a failing neighborhood (not considered failing by OUSD standards), makes us consider the options of un-affordable private schooling for our family and/or moving out of Oakland.

    A big problem I see in the public schools in our city is the contrast between what we call success and efficiency. Some of the schools that are considered both are so because parents are told at Back to School Night to break open their check books and write one for the public school. If that’s considered efficiency I’m confused. As the same time schools that achieve success but are below the threshold of 300 (like Kaiser which doesn’t expect large donations from parents to meet the budget shortfalls with state money) are considered inefficient I’m perplexed at how we move forward.

  • political corrector

    Art-

    Thanks for the counter point, and like I said , I am by no means a education style defender. I agree that as an employee of a non profit, all of our focus tends to be on dollars chasing. Charters, I would agree are no different.

    That said,so is OUSD. I read that Bill and Melinda Gates gave millions of dollars a few years ago so that the district could create small schools. How many of those were succesful? People I talked to say not too many, but worse yet, they are not going through school closure.

    Every grant tha my org goes for is countered by the OUSD grants office, and guess what? They get every grant put out that I have seen, while our recored site at a realistic 40%. I, have argued that we need to hire theri grants staff, but thats another story.

    But in palying devils advocate, how many charters have went bankrupt or belly up due to lack of dollars?

  • political corrector

    Sorry for my messy typing,I flunked that class, I guess my slant towards education blogs were born there.

    I meant to say that many of the schools funded through the Gates Foundations are NOW going through school closure.

  • Jill

    We just got the announcement of these meetings in the mail today, postmarked September 29th. Guess OUSD didn’t want everyone to participate. Probably lots of us left out of the process….

  • Small schools advocate

    I want to respond to Political Corrector’s comment about the new schools opened over the past 7 years in Oakland. All those new schools opened to address either severe overcrowding (over 900 students in an elementary school) or chronically failing schools. Linda Darling-Hammond (education advisor to Barak Obama) just evaluated the new small schools reform in Oakland and found the reform to be working for kids. AND, many would be slated for closure as they are under 300 (many were intentionally designed small and put in facilities for 250 students!!). This is not a time to pit charters against in-district, newer versus older small schools. This is a time for us to be unified in our opposition to a plan that does not start with central cuts, does not authentically engage the community, does not look at the long-term costs of closing effective schools (families flee the district), and does not prioritize children’s learning. We need to be fiscally responsible, but we need to look at ALL the options and not just jump to closing schools that may be working for kids.

  • political corrector

    To all,

    I think I understand the small schools approach and support it if it is fiscally feasible.

    But I think the problem lies more in the spending structure of these small schools than the revenues.

    How many uncessary staff work at the school site, and compare to other small or charter schools. I am not trying to pit anyone aganist each other, I simply think that if one system works, why not promote simply for that.

    A few hundred years ago the majority of the population also believed that the world was flat; a believed that was supported for an epic number of years, until the theory was proved wrong and the world view changed.

    Simply because something has been done the same way for a long time does not mean it works.

    That is all.

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  • Polly

    If school closures was not on the agenda, why was it the topic of this meeting? If Kirsten Vital and Kerry Hammill didn’t know it was not on the table… I just don’t get it.

  • Katy Murphy

    You’re not alone, Polly.

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