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Meeting to Discuss Proposed Oakland School Closures Draws Huge Turnout

OAKLAND (KPIX) -- It was an emotional night for many students in the Oakland Unified School District Monday as they faced the possibility of losing their schools. Hundreds of community members showed up for the school board meeting to oppose the campus closures and consolidations proposed for the next two school years.

In 2006, Oakland embraced a small-school model to better serve impoverished neighborhoods. But there are those on the school board who think that was a financial mistake and they're looking to change it. And they're not wasting any time doing it.

The proposed closure list was released to the public on Sunday. Six schools -- Brookfield, Carl Munck, Prescott, Grass Valley, Parker, Community Day School -- are recommended for closure at the end of this academic year. Two other schools -- Horace Mann Elementary and Korematsu Discovery Academy -- would close after next year, with their students then being reassigned to other schools.

Additionally, three schools would merge onto other campuses after this school year with Manzanita Community School moving to join Fruitvale Elementary the following year. The community just found out about the possible closure last Friday and it has organized quickly to try to save this school.

The Manzanita Community School held a viewing party Monday night, as parents, teachers and students united to fight the possible school closure. On Zoom, roughly 1600 people raised their hand for a chance to speak during the board meeting.

"Teachers have really helped me to get my children to the right path of education," said Manzanita parent Tania Chi.

"You're looking for family involvement but your also looking for that personal touch, said Pablo Pitcher Deproto. "When you have a smaller school, you just have more of an ability to reach those students."

OUSD says it has too many small schools which makes it difficult to upkeep facilities and drives down salaries for teachers.

"Part of the narrative is we can't give the teachers raises unless we close schools is incredibly offensive to pit us and our salaries against our school communities," says Carrie Anderson, a teacher at Manzanita Community School.

Chi thinks the closure would have a huge impact on the largely low-income families at the school.

"I think parents would have to get up and move," she said. "They would have to make a lot of schedule re-arranging throughout their day, and we don't have a lot of help throughout the day."

Oakland Unified officials said they are seeking community engagement by holding the special meeting Monday night. However, that meeting comes just one day after the list was released.

"How are we going to engage?" said Regina Morones, a Manzanita staff employee since 2006 when the school was founded. "How are we going to say anything? How are we going to show up at the board meeting if it's on Zoom? So, to me, it's all a strategy to make sure there's as little push back as possible."

Board President Gary Yee said OUSD has too many small, under-enrolled schools and it's a financial burden preventing the district from providing adequate service to the community. He said larger, more regional schools would save money that could be put toward higher teacher salaries and a more effective operation.

Though the district is not currently in a financial crisis, Yee said there's no use waiting for things to get worse.

When he was asked if it was reasonable to take a vote only eight days after the closure list was released to the public, Yee replied, "Ummm...I understand the anger and the worries and the concern. I believe the process is one that is comprehensive and sufficiently detailed for us to consider."

As for holding the public meeting the day after the list was revealed, Yee addmitted he didn't expect that anyone's minds would be changed anyway.

"It's super hard for people to consider something other than what they're familiar with," he said.

District 5 Director Mike Hutchinson alerted the community about the 6 schools on the closure list.

"We have no financial crisis," sats Hutchinson. "We have a mismanagement crisis."

Hutchinson is outraged that some of his fellow school board members are trying to push through school closures, especially during a pandemic.

Hutchinson adds "There's been no engagement, no process, they gave a ten day timeline to close schools permanently. The biggest issue is we don't have an emergency going on right now that says we have to make these decisions in the next few days."

But what the community gets from Manzanita seems pretty important. The school keeps a storeroom stocked with food, clothing and school supplies for families that can't afford them. But they also have everyday staples like toilet paper and toothbrushes.

Afterschool program director Angela Phung said that could change if they have to move to a regional school.

"They wouldn't be able to get what they need for their families," she said.

OUSD's mission statement says it strives to be a "full-service community district." Parents with children at the schools being impacted by the proposal are left wondering how far they will have to travel to access it.

Board members say they plan to vote on the proposal eight days later at another special meeting scheduled for February 8th.

John Ramos and Andrea Nakano contributed to this report.

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