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Oakland District Weighs Closing Schools Amid Budget Shortage

What is typically a dull affair, a weeknight meeting of a school board, was anything but on Monday night.

More than 1,800 people swarmed the Oakland Unified School District’s virtual board meeting to voice anger and disappointment with a plan to close, merge or downsize 16 of the district’s 80 schools. The meeting, which began at 6 p.m., drew so many public commenters that it did not conclude until 3 a.m.

“I’m supposed to be asleep right now, but I’m here to fight for our schools,” said a fourth grader who attends a school on the chopping block.

The proposed closures in one of California’s biggest school districts have roiled Oakland, with teachers staging a hunger strike and middle schoolers walking out of class on Tuesday. Another protest is scheduled for this weekend.

Opponents say the changes would increase class sizes, lead to layoffs, worsen the quality of education and force families to travel farther to get to school. They are particularly upset that the plan was announced during the Omicron surge, with relatively little warning.

The list of schools being considered did not become public until late last week, and the board is slated to vote on the measure on Feb. 8. If approved, most of the closures would happen before this fall.

“I literally begged for you not to try to do this, especially during a pandemic,” Mike Hutchinson, a board member who opposes the closures, said during Monday’s meeting. “How could anyone in good conscience threaten anyone with closing our schools in a 10-day process when you know our communities are suffering?”

District officials, however, say they have few options.

Enrollment in Oakland Unified has declined by more than 15,000 over the past 20 years because of falling birthrates, the pandemic and the proliferation of charter schools, according to district data.

The drop in students has resulted in an annual $150 million reduction in state funding for the district, which currently has a yearly budget of about $700 million, The San Francisco Chronicle reports.

For the upcoming fiscal year, the district is facing a $12.3 million deficit on top of $3.2 billion in needed repairs at school facilities, according to data presented at the meeting.

The district’s financial problems are so extreme and longstanding that it is facing a takeover from state or county officials if it doesn’t find a fix.

Which brings us to the school closure plan.

District officials say they could save between $4.1 million and $14.7 million by combining schools that are underenrolled, allowing them to cut back on staff and overhead costs. Twenty-six of the district’s schools have so few students that they’re considered fiscally unsustainable by the district.

Oakland Unified has 80 schools for its 35,000 students, while the similarly sized Fontana and Fremont school districts have about 40 schools, according to district data.

Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell acknowledged that the closures would disproportionately affect Black students, who make up 22 percent of the district overall but 36 percent of students affected by the closures, according to district data.

“This is not easy for me to present this information, especially knowing that African American students and families will be the most affected by these recommendations,” Johnson-Trammell said, as reported by The East Bay Times. “At the same time, we must be just as honest about the challenges we’re facing as a school district.”

Today’s travel tip comes from Beverly Pachner, who lives in Oakland:

“There is no better place in the Bay Area to explore plants from all over the world than the University of California Botanical Garden. Located on 34 acres in Strawberry Canyon, its diverse collection includes over 10,000 plants from nearly every continent. While many are rare or endangered specimens, native plants are also well represented. Although every path is worth following, my favorite places are the South African hillside, the Deserts of the Americas collection, the Japanese pool and the Chinese Medicinal Herb Garden. Meandering through this amazing garden is a good way to take a trip around the globe without leaving California.”

Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.

The highly referential paintings of the California artist Troy Lamarr Chew II.

With Valentine’s Day coming up, we’re asking about love: not who you love, but what you love about your corner of California.

Email us a love letter to your California city, neighborhood or region — or to the Golden State as a whole — and we may share it in an upcoming newsletter. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

In late January, Erik Braverman and Jonathan Cottrell said “I do” on the pitcher’s mound at Dodger Stadium.

The men knew their wedding would mean a lot to not just their 75 guests, but also to countless others who have witnessed members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community struggle to find acceptance in professional baseball and other sports.

Read more of their love story in The New York Times.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword, and a clue: Pepperidge Farm cookie (5 letters).

Jonah Candelario, Briana Scalia and Mariel Wamsley contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.

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