By JR Valrey, The Minister of Information
The new year was marked with an ongoing struggle against the Oakland Board of Education’s plan to close a number of public schools in Oakland’s predominantly Black and Brown neighborhoods that has reached national news, has thousands of students, parents, and community members participating, and has two concerned teachers on a hunger strike until the school closures are halted. I talked to Westlake junior high teacher and organizer Tim Killings about what is at stake.
JR Valrey: Why have Oakland Unified School District students been protesting? Who and why are the two men on a hunger strike?
Tim Killings: Oakland students are protesting because the Oakland Board of Education had the superintendent Kyla Johnson Trammell bring recommendations on schools that should be closed, in Oakland. The sixteen schools that were recommended were in all Black and Brown neighborhoods. On Feburary 8th, the Board of Education gave into the community protest and resistance and took a big portion of the schools off the list for recommended closures. However, the schools that are still on the list are all in East Oakland. So we are not stopping. Moses Omolade and André San-Chez are two Westlake employees who began a hunger strike on February 1st, 2022 until the Oakland Unified School District completely halts all plans of school closures and mergers.
JR Valrey: How was the decision made to close 12 schools in mostly Black neighborhoods?
Tim Killings: The first thing that I would like people to know is that the Oakland Unified School District has had financial oversight over its finances, since they went into state receivership in 2003, because of another deficit. The first thing that the state did was force a $100 million loan on the district. We currently still owe 17.5 million dollars on that loan. Due to this loan the state uses a non profit called Fiscal Crisis Management Assistance (FCMAT), to help OUSD manage its finance. We pay this non-profit $1 million per year. The recommendations that FCMAT has made for OUSD is to close schools, slash the budget by 90 million, and sell or lease properties. This oversight non-profit is made up of all unelected white men, stationed in Bakersfield, and has a long history of failed recommendations. All they have done is accelerated closures of our schools and gentrification in our communities. In October, the school board voted to end school closures. Afterwards, the Alameda County Educational Superintendent L. Karen Monroe sent a letter of “lack of going concern”, which basically threatened the district with takeover if it did not implement the recommendations from FCMAT. The letter even threatened to withhold the salary of OUSD Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell. The Oakland Board of Education unsuccessfully appealed Monroe’s decision to the State Superintendent Tony Thurman. In January, the newly elected Oakland School Board President Gary Yee, and Shante Gonzalez directed the district to bring forth recommendations for school closures and mergers. Once the proposed list was created by OUSD, Director Mike Hutchinson leaked the list via Facebook. The board set a meeting on January 31st, to publicly read the recommendations for school closures and mergers, and a following meeting on February 8th to vote on the recommendations. Due to this list being released to the public, the special meeting on January 31st, 2022 to discuss the proposed school closures had over 2,000 attendees. Every attendee that spoke during public comment disagreed with the recommendations and voiced that the community of Oakland would resist this decision. Within a week there were student walkouts, rallies, caravans to the board of directors houses, and even hunger strikes.
JR Valrey: Why is a major school closing an issue right now in the middle of a pandemic?
Tim Killings: The schools closing during a pandemic are an issue because the district has said that under enrollment is the reason why many of these schools are being proposed to close. Many of these schools are facing the effects of COVID 19. The average daily attendance, which is used for determining funding, is down., which means the district is getting less money. However, the district has got millions of dollars in Covid relief funds, and school closures have never been proven to save money. When schools are closed ,the district either leases those properties to charter schools owned by billionaires or sells them to developers, which means public property which was paid for by our tax dollars becomes owned by private interests that could care less about Black and Brown communities. This is institutionalized racism and part of the process of gentrification.
JR Valrey: Some say that the OUSD has been failing Black students for decades and that parents already should have been looking towards other means of education?
Tim Killings: I do agree that public schools are failing and we should always advocate for our children’s education, and not depend on public schools to raise our children. But once we take a deeper look into the reason why public schools are failing, we find that this failure is designed and intentional. Our schools are purposely underfunded because the district mismanages millions of dollars each year, and very rich people decide that they can make a profit by running charter schools. To do this they need schools to close, so they can enroll our students and lease or buy our public buildings. They spend billions buying school boards and lobbying lawmakers. In New Orleans, there are no more public schools because they have all been closed and turned into charters; out of the 18 schools that have been closed since 2003, 16 have been turned into charter schools. So to say we shouldn’t fight for public schools because they are failing is not the solution. A majority of our children are enrolled in these public schools. There are very few affordable private schools for the average Black family in Oakland. We need to fight for control of our public schools. And once we have control of the schools, then we can make sure that they are properly funded, not sold to the highest bidder.
JR Valrey: How many students will be affected by the decision to close the schools down?
Tim Killings: If the schools close down, 1,000+ students will be displaced and have to change to schools that are not close to their homes.
JR Valrey: What is the Black Students for Reparations in the Oakland Unified School District campaign about? What are its positions?
Tim Killings: Reparations for Black Students was formed from a Black Student and Families Thriving Task Force. “Specifically, the Task Force is charged with:
Developing recommendations for OUSD Black Thriving indicators (data).
Developing a recommendation for the Black Student Thriving Plan (coherence).
Developing and monitoring progress of the Black Thriving Fund (resources).
Monitoring other initiatives focused on advancing outcomes for Black students in OUSD and across the country (learning).
From this work the Oakland Board of Education was supposed to do an Equity Analysis Report on any decisions that they make, however, the board has refused to do this report on the schools they voted to close. The board refuses to do this report, because they know that it will prove that school closures disproportionately impact the Black community.
JR Valrey: Why should the community be involved in this fight to keep the schools open and not just the parents?
Tim Killings: The community should be involved in this fight because it is a fight against gentrification, a fight against institutionalized racism, a fight for our children to have access to an equal education, and a fight against the privatization of public resources. This struggle is bigger than just schools closing. This is a fight that highlights everything that is wrong with our society. When they can close majority Black and Brown schools because the property holds more value than the community, there is a problem. We cannot be quiet on this issue.
JR Valrey: Where are some of the next big demonstrations and actions?
Tim Killings: The next demonstration is a Speakout on Thursday February 17th in front of the State building at 1515 Clay St. at 4:30PM and a Town Hall on February 19th at Markham Elementary at 7220 Krause St. from 2pm to 4pm.
JR Valrey: What can people do to assist the students in the OUSD that are striking?
Tim Killings: The community can come to the Board Meetings and tell the board to reverse its decision to close schools. Support teachers who have voted to go on strike. They can also come to the town hall and support all the upcoming actions. Finally, they can support the Convocation Hunger Strikers at Westlake by keeping up with them on IG at hungerstrike4oaklandschools.