School Closures Make Sense 

Oakland Unified won't be able to solve its problems until it shutters small schools that it can no longer afford.

In the past decade, Oakland public schools have lost roughly 30 percent of their students. The district had an enrollment of about 54,000 in 2000, but it has dropped to about 38,000. According to the Census, it was a major demographic shift, as more and more families fled the city. But in the intervening years, Oakland schools didn't do much to address this troubling trend, and so today the district still has about the same number of schools it did ten years ago. It's a problem that Tony Smith, Oakland's superintendent of schools, is trying to tackle head on.

Over the weekend, Smith announced that he wants to close five elementary schools in the city at the end of this school year, and consolidate several more small schools at the city's high school campuses. The move, according to Smith, could save the cash-strapped district about $2 million a year, the San Francisco Chronicle and Oakland Tribune reported. Smith plans to add more schools to the closure list next year, and the year after. He wants to close up to thirty schools in all.

As the Express reported in 2010, Oakland has far more schools than it can afford because of declining enrollment. In fact, it has the fewest number of students per school of any large district in California. On the surface, that might not sound so bad. After all, aren't smaller schools supposed to be better? In theory, yes.

But all those extra campuses cost the district lots of money it doesn't have. Each school requires its own principal and support staff. And because the district has so many schools — a staggering 101 — it ends up spending millions on staff that other districts with fewer schools don't need.

This fact is one of the main reasons why Oakland school teachers are among the lowest paid anywhere. It's a troubling reality that creates even more headaches for the district. Because Oakland pays its teachers so poorly — $10,000 to $30,000 less a year on average than neighboring districts — it has a very difficult time attracting and keeping good instructors. The problem is compounded by the fact that working in Oakland public schools is already a tough job. As a result, the district has had to depend on attracting do-good teachers who don't mind difficult working conditions and lower pay.

As you might expect, it hasn't worked out so well, especially for kids living in low-income areas. Every year, children in those schools don't know whether their teacher is going to show up for class because he or she might have taken a higher paid position in some other district. In addition, those schools don't have many good veteran teachers, because they tend to leave over time and transfer to wealthier areas of the city. As a result, the kids who are most likely to need the best, most experienced teachers are instead subjected to a revolving door of rookies barely out of college.

Smith understands these problems all too well. He also has put forward an ambitious plan to steer more resources to these troubled schools to help kids who need it the most. But he can't make any of these needed reforms unless Oakland closes a bunch of schools it can no longer afford.

The sticking point, of course, is that closing schools is the electric third rail of education politics. Parents get mighty angry when they find out that the school their kids attend is slated to shut down. Earlier this month, parents of tiny Kaiser Elementary School in the Oakland Hills made a big stink when their school was placed on the preliminary closure list. Kaiser is a high-performing school that's popular with parents throughout the city. Although Smith hasn't publicly acknowledged it yet, the outcry from the Kaiser parents probably played a big role in why the school was ultimately spared this year.

The truth is, however, that Oakland can't afford to operate little schools like Kaiser — no matter how much parents love sending their kids there. At less than three hundred students, it's far smaller, and thus much less cost-efficient, than elementary schools in other districts. For some perspective, the average elementary school in California has 585 students.

Smith says that for an elementary school to be sustainable in Oakland it needs to have at least 380 students. In other words, if Kaiser Elementary parents are determined to keep their school open in the future, they're going to have to attract about one hundred more kids to the campus. It likely will mean larger class sizes, and more portable classrooms, but otherwise that school is going to have to close.

The same goes for other small hills schools that are financially inefficient. After all, it's not fair for Smith and the school board to target small flatlands schools that serve black and Latino kids but spare hills schools that cater to affluent white children. For example, Hillcrest, a K-8 school in the city's exclusive upper Rockridge/Broadway Terrace neighborhood, had about 330 students last year — an unsustainably low number. It, too, needs to add a lot more students, or it should close.

Such a move, of course, would likely spur a major backlash because Hillcrest parents are notoriously well-connected. The school is also one of the top performing campuses in the East Bay. But it simply wouldn't be fair to close small schools elsewhere in the city, but leave Hillcrest, and its politically influential parents, alone.

Three-Dot Roundup

A replacement nurse killed a cancer patient at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland when she injected a nutritional supplement into the patient's bloodstream. The supplement was supposed to go into a catheter that went to the patient's stomach. Hospital officials had locked out the regular nurses in a labor dispute. ... The Metropolitan Transportation Commission appears poised to go forward with a plan to gamble $180 million in public funds on the San Francisco real estate market and ignore a state audit that may conclude that the proposal is illegal. ... The UC Berkeley grads that were being held in an Iran prison were finally freed on $1 million ransom — er, bail. ...The City of Oakland has already spent about $1.4 million fighting wrongful termination lawsuits filed by former City Administrator Deborah Edgerly and her top deputy Cheryl Thompson, who were both canned by ex-Mayor Ron Dellums. Last week, the city council agreed to settle Thompson's case for about $500,000. ... And Governor Jerry Brown signed a settlement deal with Amazon.com that will require the online giant to finally begin collecting sales tax from its customers starting next year. The deal also means that Amazon has dropped its ballot-measure drive that sought to overturn the state's new online sales tax law.

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