Strategy and Analysis to Defend and Transform Public Education
By Aram Mendoza and N. Finch in collaboration with Dewey teachers
Displacement of long-time, low-income residents due to gentrification has been an all too common story in the Bay Area recently. Now the same insidious process is targeting some of the most “at-risk” students in Oakland. Over the past two weeks, in the end of school rush, the Oakland Unified School District’s administration revealed they have been in close discussions with gentrifying developers that puts Dewey Academy, one of the public continuation high schools in the OUSD, in the cross-hairs of real estate agents and developers. The developers are already planning a 24 story luxury condo building overshadowing Dewey and now want to add Dewey and the old OUSD headquarters to the project. What follows is an overview of the situation, why it’s problematic, how it’s situated in the context of gentrification in the Bay Area, and what those of us opposed to the displacement of Dewey and the gentrification of Oakland can do about it.
“Surplus Property” and “Surplus Populations”
On Monday, June 10th, an OUSD-initiated group named the “7-11 Committee” (the name stems from the requirement that the committee have at least 7, and not more than 11, people on it) met for the second time. The Committee was composed of various real estate attorneys, members of charter school boards of directors, and a couple community members. Not a single active OUSD teacher or student was on the committee – the only current educator on the committee was the current principal of Dewey Academy. They were charged with “advising” the school board as to the status of the OUSD property located on 2nd Avenue, east of the lake between E. 10th and E. 12th streets. This property currently houses the former OUSD administration building, which was mysteriously flooded last year, as well as Dewey Academy. The question set before the Committee was to determine whether or not the parcel of land housing both the former OUSD admin building and Dewey Academy was “surplus property.”
Surplus property is defined as property that is retained by the school district but is not currently being used. How can anyone imagine that an actual school – Dewey Academy – that has just graduated about 130 students in the past weeks, and that houses a GED program for community members could ever be considered “surplus”? During the first 7-11 committee, one of the OUSD’s attorneys referred to the “surplussing” of Dewey – that is, using the word “surplus” as a verb – and described the way that the OUSD and developers could actively convert Dewey into “surplus property” in order to make it open for development. (1)
The surplus property category is being used as a means to displace Dewey students and treat them as a surplus population. It has nothing to do with Dewey actually being property that’s considered “surplus.” This mirrors the treatment of Oakland’s youth in the broader society. Seen as an expendable, incarcerable, and unemployable “surplus population,” Oakland’s youth are those who should be pushed to the margins in order to make way for more desirable occupants of land – those that can afford the lakeside view from the window of their 10th floor condominium. This is the opposite of how they are treated at Dewey Academy where educators and community members work hard to support students who are missing credits needed to graduate, impacted by gangs and who might otherwise slip through the cracks of other OUSD schools.
Against the Displacement of Dewey Academy
“The safest place for Dewey to be [for the students] is right where it is . . . “ – Dewey High School alum
There are at least three central reasons that highlight how problematic and oppressive the move to displace Dewey and the OUSD Administration building are.
First of all, Dewey’s current location is next to the Youth Heart Health Center, a student centered free health clinic that Dewey students helped design, in collaboration with OUSD employees and MetWest High School students. What sense does it make to take our highest risk, highest need students away from a health center that they helped design? While the OUSD has committed in rhetoric to prioritizing the social/emotional needs of Oakland youth, this move by the administration directly goes against the social/emotional needs of Dewey students and, by extension, all youth who access the health center. These students helped shape the YHHC with the understanding that they would be able to access the medical services there. Since its opening, Dewey students have made up the highest percentage of youth who have accessed the clinic. Without these young people being in close proximity to the YHHC, the center’s numbers may decline and put them at risk of budget cuts and layoffs, causing further harm to all students who access the center – including those from MetWest and La Escuelita.
Additionally, many students at Dewey are gang-impacted, and the location of Dewey in an accessible and relatively neutral territory by the lake means that students can come to school and be in a safer space than they would be if they had to attend another school in another neighborhood. The informally discussed alternative locations of Fremont High School in East Oakland, Santa Fe elementary in North Oakland and Lakeview campus north of the lake are all either unsafe for gang impacted students or inappropriately far, especially for youth who are already struggling with truancy. This proposed displacement will only further the alienation and marginalization that these young people face by destabilizing what is perhaps one of the most stable institutions in their lives. If Dewey did not exist and function as it is, and where it is, many of these students would not have the opportunity to recover credits in a safer space and eventually graduate with a high school diploma.
Lastly, the decision making process behind Dewey’s forced displacement has been incredibly undemocratic and marginalizing of youth, educator and community voices. The committee that is advising the school board on whether or not Dewey is “surplus property” includes real estate lawyers that represent condominium developers and charter school board members. This is unacceptable and disrespectful – nobody should decide the fate of a school but the students, educators and staff who make the school run on a daily basis. The fact that this committee was appointed by the superintendent without any meaningful engagement with the school community is a slap in the face to a community of students and educators who have worked hard to make Dewey one of the safest campuses for struggling students in Oakland.
All of these problematics surrounding the seemingly forced displacement of Dewey lead us to the question: why is this displacement being pushed forward in such a rushed way?
Why Dewey and Why Now? Gentrification and OUSD Administration
Clearly the value of lakeside property is at the heart of why Dewey’s students, educators and community are being treated as an expendable, surplus population. In a rapidly gentrifying environment, city officials and school district administrators are quick to collaborate in “public-private partnerships” with developers and real estate attorneys who see the growth of a luxury condominiums and rising property values (and thereby rising rents) as the center of a strategy to “develop” and “improve” the city of Oakland. Of a highly secondary concern are the human beings who have worked at Dewey for years, sought a high school diploma at Dewey, or spent years in community design processes putting together plans for a community centered educational complexes like the Downtown Educational Complex that houses the Youth Heart Health Center, La Escuelita Elementary and MetWest High School, and that Dewey students heavily participated in.
In addition to the raw economics behind the OUSD wanting to sell lakeside property, the destabilization of a school like Dewey also plays a social role in the gentrification of Oakland. It’s been well established through studies in New Orleans, Chicago and Philadelphia that school closures and moves contribute to declining enrollment by those students who are displaced. (2) OUSD’s own declining enrollment shows a relatively stable amount of students – around 38,000 students – from 2006 to 2010. Then from 2011-2013 we see a decline by over 1000 students over the course of each year! (3) What happened in those years that could be correlated with this decline? In 2011 the OUSD school board approved a plan to close 5 elementary schools. In 2012, Fremont and Castlemont high schools went from being broken up into small schools back to being large, comprehensive high schools. Both of these moves further destabilized the lives of young people and their families in the same way that displacing Dewey will do.
The “shock” of destabilization through school closures and displacements have played a key role in pushing out long term residents from cities like Oakland and Chicago. The more a community is destabilized, the more the conditions are created for them to be pushed out of the city, creating space for wealthier, higher waged, and whiter residents to move in and take their place.
In a place that prides itself on a radical history and wields progressive rhetoric, this situation epitomizes the reality that the city doesn’t really care about Oakland’s youth. When push comes to shove, the needs of developers always take priority over the needs of Oakland’s communities, especially when the community members are young people who have struggled to make it through a dysfunctional school system and are seen as a moveable nuisance by upscale property developers.
The Role of OUSD Administration and School Board
Where are our school board and OUSD officials in the midst of all this? While Superintendent Gary Yee has been central in appointing and coordinating the 7-11 committee in charge of determining whether or not the old headquarters and Dewey are deemed “surplus property,” the school board members appeared to have just found out about these proposals for the first time. Why the lack of public information regarding this important decision?
There appears to be, however, at least one Board member who knew plans were in the works. Board President David Kakashiba, who represents District 2 where Dewey is located, was acknowledged in the Lake Merritt Station Area Plan under the heading: “Community Stakeholders Group and Technical Advisory Committee.” (4) This stands out because the city is currently undertaking the development of “Specific Plans” across the city (including West Oakland and the Oakland Coliseum area) which essentially streamline development by providing a universal Environmental Impact Plan and rezoning for certain target areas of the city. Recently, the West Oakland plan has received a lot of heat because it includes no guarantees of affordable housing or renter’s rights, essentially streamlining gentrification.
In the case of the Lake Merritt Specific Plan, Dewey Academy and the old HQ are specifically rezoned from “institutional” land to “urban residential.” (5) This draft plan was proposed in December 2012, just a month before the HQ was flooded on January 8th, 2013. This begs the question, why did Kakashiba, elected to be a steward of schools, sign off on a document that reclassifies an existing school and an at-the-time fully functioning administration building as land targeted for residential development? And how come the true stakeholders of the school community – parents, students, teachers, staff, and community members – are only just now hearing about plans to demolish our school and lease off public property to developers?
Unfortunately, the circle of powerful officials who knew about this before us doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the most troubling discovery, so far, is that California Assembly members are assisting this project. On February 14 of this year, Assembly members of the East Bay, Rob Bonta and Nancy Skinner, introduced a bill (AB 1726) that is specifically intending to exempt OUSD from needing to offer any “surplus property” to charter schools before being able to sell or lease it to other parties. It should be clear that this bill is targeted specifically at Dewey and the old HQ in order to fast-track its development into condos. The 7-11 committee was formed less than a month ago in order to deal with “surplus property,” yet to this day, no other sites have been brought up about being “surplused” and OUSD officials have openly stated that this process was started as they were approached by the developers about the Dewey and HQ sites. (6) Moreover, this bill extends the period that this exemption would be active from the current 2016 to 2020. Clearly, Dewey and the old HQ could be just the start of selling off “surplus” public property.
All of this paints a clear picture of our city’s upside-down priorities and processes – developers and politicians are uniting around a plan to increase the number of luxury condos while those who will be most directly impacted by the sale of public properties have no decision-making power.
So far, District staff and Superintendent Yee have been pushing this development using the argument that OUSD is an underfunded urban district with many needs. They tell us that we can build a new HQ by using the lease payments of the condo development. Looming over us, they say, is that we need a quick solution to our administration facility problems since the insurance payments from the flooding of the old HQ runs out by August of 2016. After that, we would have to use general funds to pay for the current temporary administration location. This argument is structured to force a quick decision that will lock public land into a 99-year lease and accepts condos as acceptable replacements for an active and important school.
In opposition to Gary Yee’s plan, some of the school board members discussed how Dewey already has a great location and should not be moved. They hoped to keep Dewey on site using some proceeds from the lease. One board member, Jody London, speculated that some of the apartments could be subsidized to support Oakland teachers and families. She was quickly checked by President Kakashiba and Superintendent Yee for forgetting that the main objective was a new HQ. While these proposals are certainly better than what the district staff and developers have dreamt up, they are far from what is really most beneficial for our students and Oakland-at-large. Even in these cases put forward by board members, the developers would still privatize public land and make millions of dollars off of building on previously public high-value real estate. Accepting these proposals would set dangerous precedents and misses out on an opportunity to establish a brand-new model in an age of gentrification that could truly set OUSD and other school districts on a path to really serve our students best.
Turning Our City Right-Side Up: What Is To Be Done?
Recent history shows us a concrete example of what we can do instead of simply accepting the orders and wishes of developers. In 2006, the schools right across the street Dewey, La Escuelita and MetWest High School, were faced with a very similar attack. A developer proposed to the district that they knock down the outdated building that housed MetWest and the portables that were La Escuelita. Very similar to today, the parents, students, and teachers were outraged, and they organized in favor of a counterproposal: They proposed that OUSD refuse the developers and build an educational complex befitting our children. Through mobilizing to put pressure on the District, they were successful and David Kakashiba, their district board member, supported them. Now 8 years later this vision has culminated in the beautiful new Downtown Educational Complex complete with new schools, a health center, a media center, and the soon-to-be-completed athletic complex and early-childhood education center. What board members like David Kakashiba once supported is now what they’re turning their backs on.
Whereas District officials appear quick to forget history’s lessons, we should not. We are faced with another precedent-setting moment: we can choose to invite gentrification into our own backyard or we can demand that OUSD serves students and not real estate developers. Dewey needs to stay intact without disruption to the students’ learning.
The developers in question, Urban Core Integral, are planning to build 244 units of luxury condos that will extend 24 stories high, blocking much of the sun from ever reaching the current location of Dewey Academy. (7) The building will be worth approximately $69 million. (8) If these units are rentals and we assume they will rent at the very conservative estimate of $3000/month (taken from a comparable apartment building across the street), Urban Core will earn gross revenue of $8.8 million per year. (Editor’s Note: This building is one that is already set for development directly next to Dewey. What the authors are advocating for is stopping the construction of additional development in place of Dewey and the old HQ and, as described below, taxing the development of the already planned for building.)
A 10% gentrification tax on either the sale or rental income of this property would net either approximately $7 million upfront or $800,000 per year, respectively. That money could contribute toward building a new headquarters or new schools or hiring new teachers. What we would spend it on should be decided by the teachers, students, and parents – those who know best how to improve and stabilize schools and the lives of Oakland’s youth.
We are in a moment when anger against gentrification is increasing across Oakland and the Bay Area. What is deeply needed right now is a successful struggle showing what people united could win against rapidly ascending gentrification. The crossroads of a fight to save a school, win more money for education, and put a halt on gentrification could be that struggle. If successful, we will have blazed a trail that shows how to set Oakland and OUSD right-side up again.
To support us, please bring your voices to the next 7-11 Committee meeting on Monday, June 23rd at 6P located at KDOL Studios at 314 E. 10th St., Oakland. Also, please come to the next School Board meeting, since they have the final decision making power, on Wednesday, June 25th also at 6P in the Great Room located at 1050 2nd Ave., Oakland.
2 – http://www.researchforaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/RFA-School-Closure-AYP-Analysis-Feb-2013_FINAL.pdf and see Pauline Lipman’s book “The New Political Economy of Urban Education: Neoliberalism, Race, and the Right to the City.”
3 – See both http://www.ousd.k12.ca.us/cms/lib07/CA01001176/Centricity/Shared/Fast_Facts.pdf and OUSD 2012 Facilities Master Plan page 9
4 – Lake Merritt Specific Plan draft released 12/2014: http://www2.oaklandnet.com/oakca1/groups/ceda/documents/report/oak039049.pdf.
5 – Ibid.
6 – http://ousd.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=607. Near minute 52:00.
7 – Report to Oakland City Council on 6/25/2013. “ENA To Develop 12th Street Remainder Parcel.”