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Opinion: Oakland school board: Serve city’s families, not your political agenda

Oakland school board: Serve city’s families, not your political agenda

Original article found here.

By Noel Gallo

In my 28 years as an elected official in Oakland — first as an Oakland Unified School District board member and now as a city council member — one of the many things I’ve learned is that I can’t tell my constituents what to do. I don’t tell them where to go to church. I don’t tell them where to buy groceries. And I especially don’t tell them where they should send their children to school. My constituents tell me what they need in their community, and it’s my job to help make those needs a reality.

I serve a primarily Latino community that’s similar to the East Oakland neighborhood in which I grew up. While the public health and economic crises have hit my district particularly hard, the reality is that there are emergencies for our families every day — long before the pandemic, and likely after, too. The emergency I hear about most often is education. Families know how important education is to their children’s futures, and yet they are painfully aware that there are not enough high-quality public-school options in Oakland.

That’s why, when parents in my district asked me to support their public charter school — Aspire ERES Academy — I didn’t think twice. This is a school that is serving Latino children better than every other school in the community; a school that has created a safe, caring school environment that families want to be part of; a school with a waiting list of more than 200 families desperately hoping for a spot for their child. This school is a model for what schools can be in communities across Oakland.

And yet, the OUSD school board voted Feb. 24 to deny ERES Academy the ability to increase enrollment, which would allow the school to respond to community demand and provide adequate resources to serve students. The denial of this request is the latest maneuver in a decade-long conflict between the district and the school, during which OUSD repeatedly ignored the voices of parents who have asked for support for their school. OUSD’s refusal to prioritize Oakland’s students and families through its denial of the material revision will force Aspire to close ERES Academy at the end of the school year.

As a veteran elected official, I have a message for this newly elected school board: You are here to serve children and families, not advance political agendas.

Ultimately, it’s the parents’ choice — not the school board’s — where they send their children to school. I’ve raised four children in Oakland, and I know that no matter how much we limit school options, parents will find a way into a school that meets their children’s needs — whether that’s a public charter or affordable private school, or one in Alameda or San Leandro. It’s misguided to believe that by limiting parents’ choices, OUSD’s enrollment will increase. Parents are smarter than that and they’ll find another way.

Sadly, it’s too late to save ERES Academy, and my heart breaks for the families that now have the added stress of finding a new school when many are carrying the unbearable weight of the pandemic. But it is my hope that the OUSD school board does not make this a pattern of limiting parents’ choices simply because of who runs the school.

Oakland is a community based on progressive values. Let’s put those values into action by listening to parents, especially those who historically have been left out of the conversation. Rather than viewing high-quality charter schools as competition, OUSD should find out why parents are choosing charters and what we can learn from them to help all of Oakland’s schools improve. Our political agendas should never trump what we know is best for Oakland’s children.

A lifelong resident of Oakland, Noel Gallo represents District 5 on the Oakland City Council, a position he has held since 2013. Gallo previously served for 20 years as a member of the Oakland Board of Education.