OAKLAND, Calif. — Parents, teachers, elected officials, students and community leaders gathered June 1 at Oakland Unified School District headquarters to demonstrate their support for returning the schools to local control and halting the school closings and reorganizations that have affected nearly half of the city’s 98 schools during the last five years.

The occasion was a hearing chaired by Oakland Education Association President Betty Olson-Jones, with panelists including Mayor Ronald Dellums, Assembly members Loni Hancock and Sandre Swanson, Alameda County Central Labor Council head Sharon Cornu, members of the elected but now powerless school board and other community leaders.

The Oakland schools have been run by a state administrator since 2003, after the district encountered severe financial difficulties.

Olson-Jones called on school workers and community members to tell area elected officials what life is like now in the city’s schools. She opened the hearing by pointing out that 25 years ago, “California spent more on schools than other states, and our public schools were rated the best in the country. Now we’re ranked near the bottom.” She emphasized that the goal of “safe, stable and successful schools” can only be realized with increased funding and a broad movement “defending every child’s right to an excellent public education.”

A number of parents, students and teachers from East Oakland Community High School (EOCHS), which is slated for closure although it is less than three years old, gave moving accounts of what the school has meant to their community.

“It’s heartbreaking that the only school that ever supported me is being shut down,” said student Veronica Sanchez. Before the school opened, she said, her school life “was very bad. But there I started to interact more. I felt good because the teachers were helpful.”

Another EOCHS student pointed out that California now spends more on prisons than on higher education, and expressed his determination “not to become a prison statistic” but to go to college.

Parents told how EOCHS accepted students who had been rejected by other high schools, and turned around many lives.

“I feel we are in worse condition now than before the takeover,” said ACORN leader Fanny Brown. Brown and other speakers said the district is further in debt now than at the time of the takeover.

Noting that his program “has been moved seven times in 10 years, and no administrator has come to talk with us,” independent studies teacher Harvey Smith said the community “has been painted into a corner by Proposition 13 and the increased spending on the prison-industrial complex.”

Prop. 13, passed in 1978, sharply curtailed property tax revenues, with school districts, libraries and other local services being the biggest losers, while the state’s latest prison expansion plan calls for spending $7.4 billion.

Participants urged support for AB 45, Assemblyman Swanson’s bill to start returning the schools to local control.

“My vision of Oakland as a model city can’t be achieved without a model education system,” Mayor Dellums said as the hearing wound to a close, an hour later than planned.

Calling public schools “the foundation of democracy,” Dellums observed that many who testified felt the state’s decisions “stood outside the democratic process.”

He and the other panelists expressed full support for restoration of local control and an end to school closings.

According to the California Department of Education, five other school districts in the state are now under some form of state control because of financial difficulties, while another has returned to full local control.

The first to be taken over was the West Contra Costa School district, which includes the city of Richmond. “Students now graduating from high school weren’t yet born” when the takeover occurred, United Teachers of Richmond President Gail Mendes said in a telephone interview.

Expressing the hope that Oakland will soon regain local control, Mendes said the state now only controls finances in her district. But, she added, that basically means while the district can decide about academics, the state has the last word wherever money is involved.

During the current salary negotiations, Mendes said, teachers thought they had a commitment until the trustee said there was not enough money.

Now, Mendes said, “we simply don’t have enough teachers, and we can’t attract new ones, because the trustee says we cannot raise salaries,” which she said are near the bottom both for beginning and experienced teachers.

mbechtel @pww.org