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Community Mobilizes to Halt State Bill Requiring Oakland to Close Public Schools and Sell Public Property

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Local residents have joined with Assemblymember Rob Bonta to oppose a state bill that would have required the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) to permanently close schools and sell or lease public school properties in the midst of the pandemic

Assemblymember Bonta and the other speakers at a press conference Tuesday announced that there was a tentative agreement with state officials that would entirely reverse the original language and place a moratorium on school closures, mergers and colocations for one year or until the end of the pandemic.

In her remarks at Tuesday’s press conference, Saru Jayaraman of Oakland Not for Sale spoke of working with top health experts on a White Paper arguing that this is not the time to close schools since communities need all school facilities to provide for social distancing during the pandemic.  This is in accord with Governor Newsom’s directives on school reopening.

The Ad Hoc Committee of Educators and Parents has collected over a thousand signatures on a petition to State Senator Nancy Skinners and Assemblymember Wicks asking them, as representatives of Oakland, to support Bonta’s language and Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) has presented Skinner and Wicks with a letter asking their support for the moratorium on permanent closures.

But the fight is not over.  Every day new reports emanate from Sacramento on support and opposition to the bill, which is scheduled for approval by June 15 or earlier.

At issue is wording that impacts OUSD is one section of the 83-page “2020 Governor’s Budget Education Omnibus Trailer Bill,” which covers a wide range of issues. The OUSD section amends a previous law, AB 1840, which currently says the district “may” sell public property to achieve financial stability but is not required to do so.

The bill would add wording into the CA Education Code requiring that state aid — up to $16 million next year —   for OUSD would be “contingent” on “new conditions” as follows: “affirmative board action to continue planning for, and timely implementation of a school and facility closure and consolidation plan that supports the sale or lease of surplus property,” according to a March 2 letter from the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT).

This latest maneuver to force Oakland to close schools is backed by FCMAT, a non-elected, private body located in Bakersfield. FCMAT has had veto power over the Oakland school district budget since 2003 when the state originally took over the district.  Although the district theoretically had local control returned, in fact the state has maintained budgetary control.  FCMAT has been working on forcing the closure of Oakland schools since their first contact with the district, which has resulted in closing 18 flatlands schools, serving overwhelmingly Black and Latino students.

Speaking at this week’s press conference, Bonta said his new wording asks that Oakland work to achieve a “fiscally sound school” district in a variety of different ways but not by permanently closing schools, at least for the next year during the COVID-19 public health crisis.  However, he emphasized that the deal on this language is not finalized.

“We’re on the verge of it, but I don’t want to say it’s final until it’s final.  The budget is not the budget until it’s voted on the and the language is final and we haven’t seen that. But we have made progress, incredible progress.”

Bonta told community members that the district’s financial decisions need to be “made locally and collaboratively in partnership with you, our teachers, our students, all of our leaders and our classified workers.”

“You’ve been fighting for this (for a long time),” he said. “I appreciate the opportunity to listen to you, to learn from you, to partner with you, to co-create solutions with you, to think through alternative possibilities with you.”

Other Oaklanders added pressure to halt the school closure bill. A resolution opposing the bill was passed by the Representative Council of the teachers’ union, the Oakland Education Association (OEA), and OEA President Keith Brown sent a letter to State Supt. of Instruction Tony Thurmond and Gov. Newsom opposing closing schools at a time when schools need the maximum amount of space in order to reopen with social distancing.

 

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