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School Enrollment Forecast Fatally Flawed

Although completely out of our hands, the possible development of OUSD’s Lake Merritt land has provoked an incredible amount of hand-wringing throughout Oakland. From anti-high-rise zealots aghast at the possibility of metropolitan-sized skyscrapers rising along the estuary, to Green Party socialists opposed to any sale of public property, to the school board members whose deserved impotence denies them a meaningful role in this land sale, some media reports would have one believe that the streets of Oakland are teeming with residents shocked and appalled by this (surely Perata-influenced) state steamroll over our innocent town. Even so, contributors to this blog see a chance for the district to pay off its debt and an opportunity for the city to add some valuable property to its tax rolls.

This argument is playing out on other blogs. Should shrinking numbers of OUSD students and administrators continue to enjoy substandard facilities on the most valuable land in the city while empty middle schools litter North Oakland? Surely not. But many argue, like School Board President Kakishiba, that the land will be needed to house increasing numbers of students resulting from downtown development (he also argues that the district has no need for an infusion of $60m). With land at a premium (the district is offered $6m/acre), they say that the district won’t be able to build new schools when these students arrive. The district, of course, is in receivership partly due to shrinking enrollment (but mostly due to inept management).

At their last meeting, the powerless school board received a report (PDF!) analyzing planned 10K-area (i.e., downtown, Jack London Square, and Telegraph/Northgate) and O29 residential construction, forecasting that the number of public school students may increase by between 425 and 2800, depending on the yield (of students per-unit) and the number of Below Market Rate (BMR) homes required by proposed “affordability” mandates. The report, however, is based on several flawed assumptions, and ignores many important factors, which a critical reading of the study reveals.

The biggest problem with the study is its overly optimistic calculations of student yield. The yield of the 1700 market-rate units already built is 0.002 students/unit. Nonetheless, the study assumes 0.01, 0.03, and 0.1 ratios for its Low, Medium and High forecasts. Even the Low forecast is five times higher than the actual yield! That’s seriously flawed and goes without explanation (the report notes that high-rise versus mid-rise units have an impact on student yields, but future developments are more high-rise than the ones already built, so should have lower yields). Similarly, the yield for the lone new family-sized low-income development is 0.38, yet the Low, Medium and High forecasts assume 0.4, 0.4 and 0.7, all higher than the actual yield. In addition, it is likely that at least some portion of redevelopment area low-income housing funds will go to senior housing, further depressing yields. Recalculating the formulas with the empirical yields (so only the number of BMR units vary), but still ignoring senior housing, forecasts 301 to 845 new students, fewer than a third of those predicted by the study.

The number of BMR units is recognized by the study as the largest variable in the forecast for the number of students. Unfortunately, the authors misunderstand the proposed mandates. An entitlement is a binding contract between the city and the developer to construct a project. The crude price caps so popular in Marin and SF cannot be imposed after permission is already granted to construct. Therefore, of the 10,088 units listed in the study’s table (aside from O29, which has a provision for family-sized low-income units, and the OUSD development), only 3389 can be subject to new mandates, and that is only if they fail to secure entitlements before the ordinance is passed and its grace period expires (and every developer is scrambling to get an entitlement before Dellums takes office). So, basically only the TerraMark development would be subject to a mandate (and they would probably do a special deal negotiated with the community, like O29, rather than just following the ordinance). Thus, even with a 15% mandate (which is very much at the high end of what is likely to pass), only 765 units would be built (including O29), and probably far fewer.

As I have illustrated above, looking at the study’s statistics, the Low forecast (based on empirical student yields and a realistic assessment of low-income housing units) should be 201 students (or fewer), not 425, and the High estimate of 2736 is absurd (it assumes that the student yield of new market-rate housing units will be fifty times what it is currently!). In addition, the study assumes that the percentage of school-aged children attending charter schools will not rise, which is very unlikely as charter schools flourish. The study also asserts that parents in downtown developments will send their teens to McClymonds High School, which, frankly, they won’t. Finally, the report makes no mention of birth-rate demographics (which I expected to be the focus of the study): the Gen Y / Echo Boom generation is aging, and they are now mostly in high school and college. This suggests that the number of OUSD students will continue to fall, as they have for at least six years, regardless of how many units are built or how the City Council attempts to socially-engineer them.

The report’s conclusions are rather irrelevant anyway. New charter schools in the downtown area serve hundreds of students. The school district should be able to mimic their flexibility, and if the district cannot, that is yet another reason for parents to choose a charter school. There are tracts of land, in the DTO as well as Eastlake, that could be purchased for school expansion, despite what panicked board members claim. To pass up TerraMark’s tremendously lucrative offer based on flawed assumptions about potential future student enrollment (as the Trib advocated today) would be a serious mistake.

Posted in breakingnews, california, o29, oakland, ousd.

2 Responses

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  1. naomi schiff says

    There were some other problems with the demo study. It assumed that all new units wereluxury condos. That isn’t true. Forest City Uptown will be rental, and not all that upscale. It will generate more students. Why are we assuming such low numbers of children is permanent? My experience is that while childless couples may move in, they often dont stay chldless.

    The charters are not so wildly successful. Some are but some are really not. I know quite a few parents who have transferred their children into the regular public schools for a wide range of reasons.

  2. Oakland Native says

    Yes, there were other problems with the study that might imply an increase in students. Uptown, yes, would be more likely to generate students than a high-rise, although I think it’s going to attract young people. There is also the hope that, as downtown becomes a more established residential area, that people would feel more comfortable having children here. There is also the higher rate of children in the Chinatown projects, and many of the buildings currently under construction are being marketed to Chinese-Americans.

    Given the factors mitigating against much low-income housing construction downtown, the lion’s share of such housing will be from O29, perhaps lending support to the argument that there should be a school there. While charter schools (of course) vary dramatically in quality, it’s likely that they will continue to grow as a share of students for the foreseeable future. Like I wrote, high school students from market-rate units would probably only go to Tech or private or charter schools, not McClymonds.

    The study is just terrible. It’s a not a basis on which the school board should make a decision. Given the current shrinking enrollment at the downtown-area schools, even though 1400 new units are occupied, the low estimate should be continued shrinking. The medium estimate is probably an increase of about 200 students. The high estimate could be as many as 800 new students. Many of these students could be accomodated in the underutilized historic office buildings downtown. What the district needs is flexibility, not 10 acres of prime lakeside land.