As Oakland school closures loom protesters attend board meeting

Oakland's school board meeting got off to a late start Wednesday night, due to a protest that commandeered the room. 

The board abandoned its agenda, and sat for two hours in a healing circle, listening to critics. 

The outcry came as the board was poised to hear staff input on closing Roots International Academy, a middle-school in East Oakland. 

"We're asking for a circle because we need them to hear us out as a community," Roots teacher Linh Linh Trinh told KTVU. 

Trinh said the school community was informed before winter break that Roots would be closing at the end of the school year. 

Eighth graders would be graduating anyway, but the remaining sixth and seventh graders - about 150 students- are set to be transferred to other campuses. 

But rather than voice opposition during the traditional comment period, the crowd shut the meeting down by marching around the school gymnasium where the board meets. 

"Even if we have public comments, they're not going to listen to us," said Trinh, "because half the time, they're not truly listening to the community."  

The activism began before the meeting, with a rally and march from Lake Merritt.

"We are Oakland, keep Roots open," chanted marchers, as they filled the gym, joining with teachers, librarians and parents alarmed by proposed budget cuts up to $30 million for the next fiscal year.

When Board President Aimee Eng tried to convene the meeting at 6 p.m. the crowd remained raucous, booing and jeering. 

When the chant came, "we want a circle, we want a circle," the school district leaders set aside their agenda to join the rearranged chairs in a "restorative practice"  session. 

A moment of silence was followed by more than two hours of sharing views and experiences. 

"We are leaders in Oakland of what the world is supposed to look like," blared Roots staffer Jane Lee, "and there are people who have positional power, and people who have very real, strong power, the students in this group and the community that surrounds you." 

Board members listened and responded.

"The questions you ask? Those are the questions that we plan on asking," said Director James Harris. 
Another expressed support for the protesters' demands. 

"I know my vote would not be to close Roots," said Director Roseann Torres.

But too few students and too many campuses mean a more than a dozen schools will be closed or combined, actions the elected officials say they can't avoid. 

"In ten or fifteen years you may decide you want to be on the school board," said Director Gary Yee to the youth, "and you'll have to make these decisions."

The circle broke up and the formal meeting eventually started about 8 p.m.

By the time closure criteria, and Roots was discussed, most of the crowd had dwindled.