Chanting “Save our schools! No cuts, no closures,” scores of Oakland teachers, parents and students hit the picket lines Friday morning in a one-day strike protesting the district’s controversial plan to shutter some of its schools.
Even though most schools in the Oakland Unified School District remained open on Friday, the district said it didn’t have enough substitutes and other staff to safely hold classes, and asked families to keep their children home for the day.
Friday’s labor action — the second teachers’ strike in just three years — comes in response to the district’s decision to close seven of its small schools and merge or shrink four others over the next two years as part of a cost-savings measure.
The district says the cuts are necessary to address declining enrollment and major budget shortfalls projected for the coming years, and pledged to redirect some of the savings to its larger neighborhood schools.
But many teachers and families say the district moved forward with its plan without the requisite community input, and argue that the closures will disproportionately affect students of color, particularly Black students and students of color with disabilities. Hundreds of parents and community members spoke out forcefully against the plan during a series of marathon school board meetings, and two teachers went on an 18-day hunger strike.
“We find ourselves facing a majority school board that has gone back on its written promise to us educators and that promise was to never again ambush a school with a last-minute closure,” Keith Brown, president of the Oakland Education Association, told the roughly 25 teachers on the picket line Friday morning outside Parker Elementary School in East Oakland — one of the schools on the chopping block. “They told us that there isn’t any money to keep our community schools open and that we have no choice. But there is always a choice.”
Brown, who led a weeklong teachers’ strike in 2019 over a new contract, said the district’s plan will directly harm its most vulnerable students and families, without actually recouping that much money. The consolidation is estimated to save anywhere between $4.1 million and $14.7 million, according to the school board’s projections.
“They are choosing to destabilize communities and take away critical resources from our children at a time when they need resources the most,” Brown said.
Educators approved Friday’s walkout by a 3-to-1 margin — a move affirming their right to bargain over school-closure decisions. After picketing at individual school sites, teachers and their supporters marched from Lake Merritt to Oakland City Hall, where a rally was held in partnership with the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Local 10. That union, which opposes the city’s effort to move the Oakland A’s ballpark to Howard Terminal at the Port of Oakland, has joined forces with OEA in a campaign against privatization efforts.
H. Matthew Seawright, a first-year early literacy tutor at Carl B. Munck Elementary School in the Oakland hills, handed out donuts to his colleagues picketing in front of the school Friday morning. An ordained minister originally from Washington, D.C., Seawright said he’s been inspired by the outpouring of community support.
“Usually when things like this happen, it’s already decided,” he said. “But then to see the students come together, to see the staff come together, to see the area come together and say, ‘We are not taking this. We are not just going to accept it. We’re going to do something about it,’ that has been so powerful for me.”
Under a plan the school board approved in February, the district is slated to close Community Day School and Parker Elementary at the end of this year, and five more schools — Brookfield Elementary, Carl Munck Elementary, Grass Valley Elementary, Korematsu Discovery Academy and Horace Mann Elementary — next summer. It also plans to merge RISE Community with New Highland Academy Elementary and eliminate grades 6-8 at La Escuelita Elementary and Hillcrest Elementary.
The vast majority of students at the targeted schools — some 93% — are considered either lower-income, English learners or foster youth. Black students also are overrepresented, accounting for more than 40% of the student body at the schools, almost double the district-wide average.
That disparity prompted the ACLU this month to urge California’s attorney general to investigate the district’s closure plan, alleging it violates the rights of Black students.
Vilma Serrano, a kindergarten teacher at Melrose Leadership Academy, who also serves on OEA’s executive board, said Friday’s strike was about fighting for the rights of all students in the district, not just those who will be immediately affected.
“Of course any day lost of school is significant. But we also know this is part of a larger message, and this could be any school,” she said. “All of the schools on that [closure] list had different metrics that didn’t make sense. And so I want parents to really understand that we are doing this for our students.”
In a last-minute bid to thwart the one-day walkout, the district on Thursday filed for an injunction with the state’s Public Employment Relations Board — which governs collective bargaining — arguing that the action violated labor agreements. But the state board ultimately denied the appeal, a decision the district said it was “disappointed” with. In a statement, it pledged to “continue to put the needs of kids first and do what it thinks is best for them.”
The district has long argued it operates too many schools for the declining number of students it serves. An estimated 35% of district schools are enrolled at “below sustainable” levels, according to officials, who attribute that drop to factors such as lower birth rates, pandemic-related moves, and a lack of affordable housing.
Fewer students means less funding, leaving the district to shoulder an estimated deficit of $12.3 million for the coming school year.
But Debra Washington, who lives near Parker Elementary, said closing more schools isn’t the answer.
“The closure of this school would impact the community as far as the children having to go far away to other schools and other neighborhoods that they are probably not used to,” she said. “They’re used to this school, and some of the families, they live in this neighborhood.”
Some parents, however, have come out strongly against the walkout, accusing the teachers union of prioritizing politics over the well-being of kids.
Students have already missed too much school and many have fallen far behind over the last two years during the pandemic, said Lakisha Young, who runs a parent-empowerment organization called The Oakland REACH.
“So whose kids and whose parents is this supposed to be doing good for?” she said, stressing that every school day is critical to getting kids back up to speed. “We are supposed to be educating people and kids so they can have the lives they want to have … It’s just being made harder and harder by the decisions by adults.”
But Josh Connor, an OUSD parent, said it was important to support teachers and give them the benefit of the doubt, despite the inconvenience of not being able to send kids to school for the day.
“Teachers are the people we trust with our kids every day,” he said. “I trust their judgment. Honestly, I think the school district rushed through the process of closing schools.”
Emmett Grout, 17, a student at Oakland Tech, said he and many of his classmates also are supporting their teachers in their fight to keep schools open.
“I think that it’s important that we’re at least trying to do something about the school closures,” he said. “I mean, it feels like sometimes the protest energy will die and go away. So I think it’s good that the teachers are stepping up to do something.”
Asked how missing the day would affect him personally, Grout just shrugged.
“Well, I have a math test,” he said. “So I’m getting rescheduled, so I’m actually kind of grateful.”