Oakland public schools have made a remarkable turnaround in recent years. The district has successfully emerged from state control, has balanced its budget, has consistently improved test scores, and has hired a superintendent — Tony Smith — who many educators believe possesses one of the brightest minds in the business. With that kind of record, it would have been no surprise had several school board members faced no opposition this year. In fact, in two of the three school board races in 2010, the incumbents ran unopposed, and the third won by a landslide. This year, however, is different.
Three Oakland school board incumbents are facing challengers, and a fourth race for an open seat could end up being tight. Why the competition? It has to do, in part, with the board's decision last year to follow the advice of Superintendent Smith and close five schools.
As the Express was first to report, Smith had come to realize by the spring of 2010 that Oakland Unified has far more schools than it needs (see "Oakland Unified Has Too Many Schools," 5/5/10). The numbers tell the story: With more than one hundred schools, Oakland has more schools per student than any other district in Alameda County and any other comparable district in the state. And the big problem with having too many schools is they cost too much. They each require their own principals, staff, and maintenance crews. Other districts don't have these extra costs because they have fewer schools that are much larger than Oakland's — and so they take advantage of economies of scale.
As a result, other districts can pay their teachers much higher salaries. In fact, Oakland pays the lowest teacher salaries on average in Alameda County, and has among the lowest salaries in the state. In Oakland, the average teacher salary is $54,035, while the statewide average is $67,448, according to the California Ed-Data Partnership, a state information clearinghouse. In Alameda County, the average teacher salary is $69,553, when excluding Oakland. OUSD's low, uncompetitive salaries also have serious consequences. The school district typically has difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers, which leads to high teacher turnover and forces students in many schools to go without competent instruction.
How did this happen? Two major shifts: Thousands of families left Oakland during the last decade as the city's population shrank, and there has been an explosion of charter schools in the city. As a result, Oakland Unified has lost about 30 percent of the student population it had a dozen years ago, yet has about the same number of schools. And since school funding in California is based on the number of students in each district, Oakland now operates on a smaller budget than it did before, yet still has many of the same structural costs.
Smith clearly understands these issues, and that's why he proposed in 2010 that the district begin the process of closing 25 to 30 schools over the next several years. Smith's plan was to use the money the district would save from the school closures not only to boost teacher salaries, but also to turn many of the remaining schools into community learning centers that offered a variety of programs and services to both students and their families (see "Tony Smith's Vision," 10/11/2011).
However, closing schools is the electric third rail in education, and the first round of school closures sparked a fierce backlash. Parents and some people who worked at the first five schools packed school board meetings and yelled at the board members. The fury was so strong that Smith and the board decided to postpone more school closures, even though Oakland still has far more schools than it can afford.
Some members of the Oakland teachers' union also joined opponents of the closures. Although closing 25 to 30 schools could ultimately help raise teacher salaries, the union has been dominated in recent years by far-left activists who view virtually everything the school board does with suspicion and who have refused to endorse Smith's plan. In addition, the teacher's union is now working to oust board members who voted for the closures.
One of the board members being targeted is President Jody London, a parent of two students in Oakland public schools. London firmly supports Smith's vision for OUSD and his plans to refocus the district on students who are most in need. "I know I have made decisions that have not been popular," said London, whose District 1 seat includes North Oakland, Rockridge, and Temescal. "But they've helped return us to financial health."
London, who was first elected to the board in 2008 when she defeated charter-school advocate Brian Rogers by more than twenty percentage points, has numerous endorsements, including both from labor and business. She also strongly opposed the license renewal of the scandal-plagued American Indian Public Charter Schools. During her tenure on the board, she has worked to improve OUSD's lunch program and has focused the district on using green-building materials, including solar panels on school campuses, and on hiring local construction workers.
But one endorsement London doesn't possess is that of the Oakland teachers' union. That group instead is backing Thearse Pecot, a local activist who decided to run for office because she adamantly opposed the school closures. Pecot is particularly upset about the closing of Santa Fe Elementary School in North Oakland. She's says it was unfair to that community. "They closed the last public elementary school in the 94608 zip code," she said, adding that she will vote against any more school closures.