A small group of angry parents, students, and teachers gathered outside Oakland Technical High School last Thursday to denounce the closing and merging of schools, and to publicize a signature-gathering campaign to recall city school board President Jody London.
Never mind the fact that London is already stepping down at the end of the year after 11 years in office, or that a special election could cost the Oakland Unified School District, which already faces a $21.5 million deficit, between $785,000 and $1 million, according to the city clerk's office.
The activists, who call themselves "Oakland Not For Sale" and have won the backing of the city teachers union, were looking for blood — or accountability, as the case may be. Their efforts were largely in response to the Board of Education's ongoing efforts to reduce the city's relatively high number of schools and redeploy those resources elsewhere.
Their discontent and distrust of district administrators is also rooted in the district's long history of financial troubles, including annual deficits that have prompted cuts and audit findings in recent years that have found fiscal mismanagement by district officials.
"We are doing the recall because it is time for accountability," said Saru Jayaraman, a district parent and veteran political organizer leading the recall effort against London. "Not just for Jody London but every Oakland school board president to realize their actions will not go without consequences, that there will no longer be school closed, after school closed, after school closed and charters put in their place without consequences."
In particular, recall advocates were outraged by the impending closure of the Henry J. Kaiser Elementary School campus in the tony Hiller Highlands neighborhood and the planned merger of Kaiser's well-performing program into the under-performing and under-enrolled Sankofa Academy in the flatlands of North Oakland.
District officials say the move is intended to make a quality program more accessible, but Oakland Not For Sale members see evidence of a broad, national conspiracy by "billionaires" to close regular public schools and replace them with privately run charter schools, which are sanctioned by state law and publicly funded but run by nonprofit entities with some district oversight.
"We need school board members who will stand up to the billionaire privatizers," railed Jayaraman, who has two children currently attending Kaiser Elementary.
As Jayaraman chanted slogans before a small clutch of reporters, she leaned on crutches, her left leg in a mechanical brace she said she got following the surgery she had to treat the injuries she said she suffered when she and five others were arrested by school district police at an Oct. 23 school board meeting.
Jayaraman and the others taken into custody were among the eight people who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit last week regarding the incident, in which officers pushed and hit people with batons after a barricade was breached. The police had come to the meeting in force after protesters stormed the board dais at a prior meeting.
"Watch us show all candidates in November 2020 that they better watch their backs," said Jayaraman, who also is the co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and president of the Food Labor Research Center at UC Berkeley.
To qualify its possibly quixotic campaign for the ballot, Oakland Not For Sale will have to gather 9,236 signatures to force a special election, which would have to occur by mid-July. Recall elections are not allowed within six months of someone leaving office.
"We know what we are doing," Jayaraman promised, "and believe me, we will succeed."
The campaign already has raised $10,000, which Jaramayan said came mostly from individual donors and included a "nominal" contribution from the Oakland Education Association, the teachers union, which has endorsed the effort. Saying he was speaking on behalf of the union, veteran Kaiser teacher Steve Neat said the situation is urgent because the board of education is continuing to favor charter schools.
"People are realizing we can't wait until January of next year to have some new school board members in," Neat told demonstrators.
London and district officials flatly deny the notion that they want to "charterize" the district. She notes that for years she was the only vote on the board against new charter schools, despite the fact that state law charges school boards with approving charters satisfying various criteria. In any case, said London, who has repeatedly won elections with comfortable margins, a recall election is unnecessary. She long ago vowed that she would leave office after the second of her daughters graduated from Oakland Tech, suggesting that she should be replaced by someone with a child in the district.
Regardless, London said she has received strong support from constituents who think the school board is acting responsibly by reducing the number of schools to save costs and improve services.
"People recognize that schools are really in a bind and the board is making the hard decisions that have really needed to be made for years and years," said London.
The battle over the future of the Oakland Unified School District will only likely intensify this spring when the district is expected to announce a third round of school closures, mergers, and expansions. The Kaiser-Sankofa merger is just one part of the district's second cohort of realignments, and a total of five rounds are expected before the planned process is completed over the next couple of years.