Tomorrow, the Oakland School Board is planning to sign a 40-year lease with the Aspire charter school management organization for the Golden Gate site in my neighborhood. I have serious reservations about this plan.
I have been a neighbor of Berkely Maynard School for almost 9 years. I visited the school in February and met with the principal, Jay Stack, who seems like an excellent school leader. This is not a criticism of the school in its current state because it seems to have very strong roots in the community and is attracting a very diverse student body from both North Oakland and Berkeley. Jay also described the school's commitment to serving all students including those with special needs, sometimes a blind spot for charter schools.
However, signing a 40 year lease at this time of crisis raises big question marks. The state's economic situation is likely to get much worse over the coming year as the virus's repercussions continue, and that will impact our schools. This economic crisis is likely to shake things up in a number of ways, so it is a bad moment to be making long-term deals.
The rationale for signing this lease is that it will allow Aspire to get a $20 million loan from the state to finance repairs at Berkely Maynard. This has been described as "free money" from the state.
However, during an recession, there is no such thing as free money: as the state makes cuts, any funding sent to schools under one program is likely to mean larger cuts under another program. Also, the current rent money from Aspire for the Berkley Maynard (former Golden Gate) site is unrestricted revenue for the school district, which is what it most desperately needs in the next few years. Under this deal, that rent money would shrink to almost nothing, in exchange for the capital investment from the state. Right now, in this crisis, that sounds like a bad deal.
Meanwhile, the political tide has started to turn against charter schools over the past few years. In another 5 to 10 years, we may be looking for ways to encourage Berkley Maynard and the other Aspire schools in Oakland to integrate back into the district as regular public schools. If they have a 40-year lease for the Golden Gate site, it might be much harder to convince them to do that.
One reason it is challenging for the district to negotiate a better lease agreement is that the office in OUSD that manages relationships with charter schools is understaffed, while the California Charter School Association and its wealthy donors bring more resources to bear at the negotiating table. That is why it is up to the board to take a look at the moment we are in, read the political and economic winds, and show leadership in rejecting or postponing this lease decision.
If you elect me to the Board in November, I promise to ask the hard questions, be transparent about my decisions, and to work with my colleagues to fight for better deals for our District.