Oakland school board votes to close middle school as budget cuts loom

In an effort to stem a $30 million budget deficit, Oakland Unified School District officials are considering closing or consolidating a number of schools over the next five years, with the first on the chopping block Monday night.

The school board called a special meeting and voted to close Roots International Academy, a small middle school serving East Oakland. Only school board member Rosie Torres voted against closure.

The controversial vote was among a several challenges district officials face in the coming days.

The board plans to vote soon on possible budget cuts, which could include staff layoffs, and fewer resources for school programs and services. The board had scheduled the vote for Wednesday during its regular meeting, but postponed it until Friday or Monday to have more time to prepare, district spokesman John Sasaki said.

A teacher strike could also be imminent, as the Oakland Education Association takes a vote this week to authorize a strike.

Oakland Unified School District has 121 schools for about 50,000 students, and closing or consolidating schools is one way the district can cut back on spending. Next year, it could face a $60 million shortfall.

“We have too many schools for the number of students, and we have our resources pretty thinly spread,” Sasaki said.

Although school district officials have said the proposal to close Roots International came down to distributing resources in the most efficient way, parents and educators said they weren’t given a chance to give their opinions.

Roots shares its Havenscourt campus with Coliseum College Prep Academy, a school serving sixth through 12th grades. Coliseum College Prep Academy will eventually expand into the space that Roots occupies. The district anticipates Coliseum College Prep will only have a handful of seats available for seventh and eighth graders next year, which means most students currently at Roots will have to be placed elsewhere.

The school district plans for the 163 rising seventh and eighth graders to have priority placement at the other 19 schools serving those grades in Oakland, and the district will provide counselors to help families choose the best school for them.

Quinn Ranahan is in her second year at Roots, where she teaches math to seventh and eighth graders.

“We need more time to be able to continue to grow,” she said. “We provide a lot of opportunities for students to be empowered.”

This year, eighth graders worked on a public speaking project about policing and criminalization, which helped students learn to advocate for themselves, she said.

Despite successful projects, the students’ test scores are far below standard, and got worse from 2017 to 2018, according to district data.

“We certainly understand that there are concerns in the community and that some are not happy in this plan,” Sasaki said. “This is about improving outcomes across the district and ensuring that we have a high quality school in every neighborhood. It’s simply hard to do that when you spread your resources so thinly.”

Silvia Ornelas sends her 13-year-old to Roots, where she’s been attending school since she was in sixth grade. Closure of the school won’t have a direct impact on Ornelas since her daughter would be advancing to high school next year, but she’s still been outspoken about the closure.

“They helped my daughter when she needed help the most academically,” she had said before the vote. “I’m fighting for the teachers and the kids that are still there that are basically left in limbo.”

For Addy Rios, a priority spot at another middle school isn’t an adequate solution. Rios’s 12-year-old son is in seventh grade at Roots.

“I will choose to homeschool my kid if the school closes,” she said before the vote Monday. “I want him to be in his neighborhood school because that’s where he’s always been. And if that’s not going to happen then he’s going to just stay home.”

Roots serves a predominantly low-income population, with nearly 93 percent of its 266 students qualifying for free lunch, according to data from the state department of education. The vast majority are also students of color, with 52 percent of the population Latino and 35 percent black students.

“It’s about the message that they’re sending the kids,” Rios said. “They’re saying, ‘We’re closing your schools because they’re not good.’ What message is that giving the kids? That they’re not good.”

Chronicle Staff Writer Jill Tucker contributed to this report

Ashley McBride is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: ashley.mcbride@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @ashleynmcb

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Oakland-school-board-votes-to-close-middle-school-13569201.php.

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