Last month’s Black History Month has been fraught with emotion to say the least. Coming off the heels of a COVID spike and with new city and state mandates around vaccines and public spaces, many teaching artists and arts administrators were just getting their feet under them when the OUSD school board announced the pending closure of a number of schools on Feb 8th. The history of school closures in OUSD is deep. After decades of defunding, mismanagement, and the rise of charter schools, OUSD has continued to find itself in a budget shortfall even as the state of California touts a record surplus of funds. The Feb. 8th decision triggered a series of actions from students, families, and educators, including a hunger strike by Westlake teachers, Maurice André San-Chez and Moses Olanrewaju Omolade. And after meeting with some of the school board members, San-Chez and Omolade said they were tricked into believing that the school board would hold an emergency meeting to overturn their decision but instead, on Feb. 18th, the school board voted to uphold their decision which will close Parker and Community Day School at the end of this school year with an additional five schools scheduled for closure at the end of the 2022-23 school year. According to KQED, “an estimated 93% of students at the schools affected by the plan are considered either lower-income, English learners or foster youth, compared to the district-wide average of about 80%. Black students are also disproportionately affected – about 43% of students at the eight sites on the original school closure list are Black, almost twice the proportion of Black students in the entire district.” In a time where the OUSD website is littered with statements about race, equity, and inclusion, the school board has voted for a scenario that would disproportionately impact its most vulnerable students. This is unacceptable. But most importantly, this is unsustainable.
The budgetary crisis OUSD is facing is not unique to Oakland or even to California. Many school districts in the state face similar challenges and after weathering a pandemic and burdening our educators, it is abundantly clear that we cannot continue down this path. The solution to a budget shortfall cannot be to close schools, traumatizing our students and families, only to turn around and do it again a few years later. As artists, as imaginers, we must look at how we can address this education crisis in a way that will not bring us back to the brink time and time again.
It is amazing to see the young people and their teachers linked arm in arm beating back the storm but we cannot afford to just weather the rain. We must build a shelter that warms and sustains us.
We may not have all the answers today but as artists, educators, and cultural workers we need to bring our voices to the forefront. Please follow @hungerstrike4oaklandschoolson Instagram and join the Oakland Unified Arts Partners monthly meeting on the 4th Thursday at 10am to keep up with actions you can get involved in.