Jermain Montiel grew up in south San Jose, so he was thrilled to send his kids to Baldwin Elementary in the Oak Grove School District. “You feel safe, it’s quiet and you don’t have to worry about hearing gunshots,” he says. Houses sell for over a million dollars in Baldwin’s zoned area and a new Costco just opened near Great Oaks Boulevard. “It’s a place where you want to raise your family.”
But because of the district’s financial struggles, Baldwin is on the shortlist for closure in the coming year, along with Del Roble, Glider and Miner elementary schools. The school board will hear public comment on the matter starting from 5:30pm on Wednesday at Herman Intermediate School. Trustees expect to make a decision by early March, using recommendations from a parent committee working through the winter to narrow down which schools should close.
A neighborhood with million-dollar homes seems an unlikely candidate to lose its elementary school, but the district cited declining enrollment and insufficient state funding as prime causes.
Baldwin, minutes away from the Santa Teresa Golf Club, the Santa Cruz mountains visible from campus, could be the next casualty of the South Bay’s housing crisis.
“It’s just too expensive in the area,” says Dominic Rizzi, a science teacher at Caroline Davis Intermediate School and president of the Oak Grove Educators Association. Empty nesters stay in their homes indefinitely, watching the value of their homes soar, while young parents struggle to pay rent in the area and leave for cheaper areas.
A Baldwin teacher, who asked to remain anonymous, has seen families move out of district to Hollister, Los Banos and Las Vegas this year to escape the housing crisis.
To close the budget gap, Oak Grove, a preschool-through-eighth-grade district, tried to pass a $132 parcel tax in 2016, but it failed by 267 votes. “We have overlapping boundaries with East Side [Union] High School [District] and any time they try to pass a parcel tax, too, we’re asking for the same folks to contribute to us as well,” Rizzi says.
Instead, the district is actively seeking ways to generate revenue, including choice programs to lure students from other nearby districts, along with the state money that follows them. Another solution, renting out space in closed school buildings to private and charter schools, has Baldwin parents worried.
“I can’t afford to send my children to private school,” Montiel says.
He’d already seen two neighborhood schools fall victim to the district’s budget woes. In a round of school closures in 2004, Oak Grove shut down San Anselmo Elementary, near Baldwin. It’s now a private school, run by a chain of schools called Stratford, which opened a school in Milpitas in 2016. Tuition for first through sixth grade is $18,200 per year. Stratford rents the building from Oak Grove, providing a source of revenue that the district says it needs to keep remaining campuses running. Just west of Baldwin, Blossom Valley elementary was shut down and rented to Legacy Christian School, where elementary school tuition is $8,550.
Stratford wouldn’t rule out opening another school in the area, especially since space for new campuses is at a premium in the Bay Area.
“We’re always on the lookout,” Stratford spokeswoman Kathleen Hawkins says.
Rizzi feared that the district could also rent to a charter school, citing Rocketship Education, which operates 10 campuses in San Jose, as a possibility. Typically, charter school teachers are not unionized, and rather than accepting all neighborhood students, most charters use lotteries and waitlists to manage admission. “It’s concerning for us to know that a school could be picked up by a charter,” he says.
A spokesperson for Rocketship says the corporate charter school network has no immediate plans to move into the area.
“Whenever possible we build our own buildings, as we have for all 10 of our San Jose schools,” Rocketship’s Chief Growth and Community Engagement Officer Cheye Calvo says. “Therefore it is unlikely we would be interested in renting space from Oak Grove. Our current growth plans focus on meeting parent demand in the East Bay.”
Baldwin and Del Roble would be prime spots for rental, since they’ve recently had physical upgrades. Baldwin’s $2 million in new bathrooms and a new playground came after parents lobbied for them, frustrated that the district—in another revenue-generating move—had rented space to a fee-based preschool, which got priority use of inside bathrooms, sending Baldwin kindergartners on a trip outside to use bathrooms across campus.
Margarita Mendoza, a Baldwin parent, fears their efforts were a waste. “These were taxpayer dollars,” she says. “These were facilities the school board voted for for district kids. And now some other entity now is going to use them?”
In its final report, the committee listed “recent modernization investment” as a reason to keep the schools open, but some parents view the improvements more cynically.
“The district sees the opportunity to make more money,” Montiel says.
The impact of any school closure will hit families of color the hardest. The schools on the chopping block have four of the five highest percentages of students of color in the district. Ninety percent of students at Miner are of color, which includes 73 percent Latinx students.
“These particular schools being chosen to be closed is a form of systemic racism and discrimination, whether they’re aware of it or not,” says Roxana Marachi, education chair of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP.
Mendoza, who is the parent representative for Baldwin Elementary on the committee, abstained from the Jan. 16 final vote in protest.
“For communities of color, who are indirectly and directly told your whole life that you are dispensable, that you are movable, for those kids to be the ones to lose their neighborhood school sites, that’s horrible,” she says.
Shaun Tanner, a white parent of three students at Del Roble, including one student of color, wanted the school to stay open. “We chose to be in Del Roble for a reason, because of the diversity of the school,” he says.
He pointed to Oak Grove’s complicated busing system, which costs the district more than $1 million per year, as a reason that high-minority schools are up for closure. Students in the Coyote Creek corridor, east of highway 101 and north of Silver Creek Valley road, have been bussed far across town to Baldwin and Santa Teresa for years, rather than attending nearby Christopher Elementary.
“They should be attending Christopher, but residents over the years have threatened the district enough to force the district to send them to Baldwin and Santa Teresa,” Tanner says. With enrollment already declining, Oak Grove may be reluctant to alienate high-income white parents in Coyote, lest they pull their students and the money that comes with them.
The district still does not have a long-term solution, either for declining enrollment or its financial struggles.
“We can’t force parents to stay within the district,” Rizzi says.