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Oakland School Closure, Merger Plans Prompt Community Protests

OAKLAND (KPIX) -- Last week, the Oakland school community was shocked to learn that 19 OUSD public schools may close or be merged in the next two years. Now, we're learning that a final vote on the action could be made as early as next week.

Manzanita Community School in East Oakland is on the list to merge with Fruitvale but the only reason the public knows about it is because District 5 director Mike Hutchinson spoke up.

"This really was just dropped out of the sky on the community," he said.

Hutchinson said he only found out about the list on Tuesday and immediately made the information public. He said that, since that time, no one else at the district or its board has made any announcement. The only mention of it is in the agenda for a special meeting called for Monday, Jan. 31. There, the board will "hear and discuss the final recommendations for consolidation from district staff."

A letter to the community from OUSD chief business officer Lisa Grant-Dawson that was released Thursday says another special meeting will be held eight days later, "in order to vote on the proposed consolidations."

"If we're going to make decisions, permanent decisions, about which neighborhoods still have a public school, that needs to be a robust process that involves the community," Hutchinson said. "At this point, there's been zero community engagement and there have been zero discussions, even among the school board to do this."

Six schools -- Brookfield, Carl Munck, Prescott, Grass Valley, Parker, Community Day School -- are recommended for closure at the end of this academic year, with two others - Horace Mann Elementary and Korematsu Discovery Academy - set to close after next year, sending the kids to other schools.

Other schools are set to merge this year: New Highland Academy merging with RISE Community, Westlake Middle with West Oakland Middle School, and Bunche Academy with Dewey Academy at the former Westlake campus.

Manzanita would merge with Fruitvale next year.

The district says it has too many small schools, draining its resources and driving down salaries for teachers, resulting in poor upkeep for facilities and disappointing academic outcomes.

Fifth-grade teacher Andrea Perez says her class at Manzanita Community has 24 students.

"That's still a full workload for teachers," she said. "That's a big number. Even if, to the district, it appears to be a smaller amount, that's a lot of work. That's a lot of students in a class every day."

Two years ago, the board got an earful from the public when it proposed closing Henry J. Kaiser Elementary in North Oakland. Despite raucous protests, the school is deserted. The district's letter doesn't say there's a financial emergency now -- just that they're expecting things to get worse. Hutchinson says you don't make decisions that big, that fast, for something that could happen down the road.

"We're not in financial crisis or any other crisis," he said. "So, to have a process where you're going to inform the community that their school is under threat and, less than two weeks later, vote to close the school at the end of this school year, makes no sense whatsoever."

Back at Manzanita Community, 10-year-old Adrian Islas-Chi, was glum over the news that the school he's known his entire life may be closing.

"Like, part of my life is just getting ripped out of me," he said. "It just hurts to see one of the favorite things you like to do ... go. It just hurts."

Monday's virtual public meeting will be held at 6 p.m. Information is on the OUSD website.

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