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Controversial Oakland School Closing Plan Narrowly Approved After Hours Of Emotional Debate

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- After hours of emotional debate, the Oakland Unified School District Board of Education narrowly approved a revised plan early Wednesday to close seven schools, merge two others and cut grades from two more over the next two years.

The plan had been a source of controversy, protests and even an eight-day hunger strike by two teachers over the last several weeks. The angry response did result in the board removing Prescott Elementary completely from the closure list and delaying the closure of Brookfield Elementary, Carl B. Munck Elementary and Grass Valley Elementary until next school year.

Only RISE Elementary with New Highland Elementary will be merged and two schools will close at the end of the current school year: Community Day School and Parker Elementary School.

At the start of the 2022-23 school year, La Escuelita Elementary and Hillcrest Elementary will also eliminate grades 6-8.

Board directors Sam Davis, Aimee Eng, Gary Yee and Shanthi Gonzales voted in favor of the plan in a vote around 1 a.m. Wednesday. Clifford Thompson abstained and Mike Hutchinson and VanCedric Williams were opposed.

Hutchinson even tried to delay the vote on the closures to give the community and the district more time to provide input and come up with alternate plans.

"What emergency has happened that we need to put aside all the work we were doing and immediately stop everything to devastate our community by threatening them with school closures," Hutchinson pleaded with his fellow board members.

The Oakland Unified School District released a statement saying -- "The District knows this is a painful topic for so many people because of how vital schools are to their surrounding communities, and how important a place they hold for students, staff, and families."

According to the district, the planned merger and closures were needed due to declining enrollment, particularly in its elementary schools. Because public schools are funded based on enrollment, this has led to a deficit over the next two years. The district says 35 percent of its schools are enrolled at "below sustainable" levels.

Following the vote, the teachers union announced Wednesday it would file a complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board over the decision. The Oakland Education Association accused board members of failing to listen to the pleas of school communities in Oakland and throughout the county for additional support and resources.

"Today, our union will take legal action against Oakland Unified to prevent the rushed and unnecessary closure of schools serving majority Black students," said Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown in a prepared statement. "And, if it comes to it, I am prepared to ask Oakland educators to strike to protect our schools. OUSD has the necessary reserves to keep schools running, and that excuse needs to stop now."

The OEA said over the past 15 years, the district has closed 16 majority Black schools, pushing more than 18,000 Black students out of the district.

The proposed closure list was released to the public at the end of January, catching parents, students and administrators off guard. Protests and student walkouts ensued.

Westlake Middle School performing arts teacher Maurice Andre San-Chez and community school manager Moses Olanrewaju Omolade launched a hunger strike. After eight days, Omolade was taken to the hospital for treatment on Tuesday.

OUSD parent of four Vanessa Gutierrez says if Brookfield and Grass Valley close, the move will cost her close to $100 a day in Uber fees to get her kids to class, because she doesn't drive.

"They're not thinking about the people that are less fortunate than them," Gutierrez told KPIX5. She's also worried about losing the Brookfield special ed teacher her son relies on.

"For him to get sent to another school with different teachers, that's honestly something that I will always try to fight for my kids," she said. "I don't like them being switched from one teacher to another."

Corrin Haskell, a teacher at Brookfield for the past 25 years, says this is about losing a valuable community school and resource and putting kids in danger.

"There's not really a school that's within safe walking distance from here if you've ever been to the Brookfield/Sobrany Park area. It's not really a place where people walk around freely for miles," said Haskell. "Taking these kids and making them walk another one and a half, two miles to get to another school on top of that is really unfair."

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