A computer rendering of the outside of a school and a courtyard
Oxford Elementary will temporarily move to a revamped West Campus in the fall. Rendering: BUSD

Oxford Elementary will relocate to BUSD’s West Campus by next fall, fleeing safety hazards at its longtime North Berkeley site.

On Wednesday evening, the Berkeley School Board voted unanimously to temporarily move Oxford down the hill for at least the 2020-21 school year. The decision was expected, but the longterm future of the old site is still hazy.

The Oxford community started the school year with unwelcome news: a geotechnical study revealed that the entire campus could move up to 20 feet in a serious earthquake, endangering the school’s inhabitants. Oxford is located at 1130 Oxford St., on the precarious Keith Avenue Landslide, and a 444-page report by Alan Kropp & Associates found an even greater risk to the school than was previously known.

“It wasn’t a huge surprise, but for some it was concerning,” said Oxford Principal Beth Rhine. She spoke with Berkeleyside in the board room courtyard before the meeting, sitting feet away from the campus she’ll run next year. The 2020 Bonar St. property, at University Avenue, also houses the BUSD headquarters and was formerly home to REALM Charter School. (REALM initially moved to the Berkeley Hills, then was closed altogether in the spring.)

Rhine said she took a tour of the new site and was comforted and excited by what she saw under construction.

“I think it’s going to be fabulous — to have a new playground with turf, a new garden…” she said.

The beloved Oxford Elementary campus could sustain significant structural damage during an earthquake, a new report found. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Some families have been skeptical that the district will get West Campus ready in time for students to arrive in August. Oxford was first slated to relocate there back in 2018-19. At that time, the district was preparing for a much smaller-scale renovation project at the Oxford Street site. However, initial studies determined the need for further research and analysis before construction, the district said.

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Facilities Director John Calise said there’s a widespread “perceived delay,” but the West Campus project dragged on because the Oxford plans went through many iterations and the nature of the construction that was needed at the new location changed.

“Everybody here and on staff clearly understands the urgency of moving as quickly as we can to ensure the safety of all our kids and staff at the school,” Board Member Ty Alper told families.

Staff also unveiled renderings and blueprints of the new school site for first time Wednesday.

The district is updating the classroom buildings, and adding numerous features inside and out: a new library, a new field, a new courtyard, fire safety upgrades, and new gates and entryways designed to secure the campus. The overgrown trees on the campus will all be replanted. The yard is particularly elaborate, with a new garden, a Japanese hopscotch court, a sundial, and an “enchanted forest” nature exploration area.

“They’re trying to incorporate learning everywhere they can,” Calise told the board.

Board members called the design “beautiful,” but Alper cautioned staff to prioritize “critical” elements to make sure the site’s ready for the August move-in.

“Students can be in the school even if the ‘forest’ isn’t fully ‘enchanted,” he quipped, “but they need a cafeteria and a library.”

The cost for the West Campus project will exceed the $10 million originally allocated for renovations there, Calise said. But he said the extra cost will be “nowhere near” the additional $28 million the district had last set aside for the Oxford work.

A new school site also comes with new logistical challenges. Staff said they’ve been puzzling over admissions and transportation for West Campus, and already have a redesign of the large parking lot in the works.

In a computerized rendering, kids play on a futuristic court/structure
An elaborate yard, with a Japanese hopscotch court and an “enchanted forest” is under construction at West Campus. Rendering: BUSD

Directly south of the campus is a residential neighborhood, which will need to get ready for Oxford’s 265 students.

“We have a new community we need to engage, and that’s the community around West Campus,” said Board Member Julie Sinai. “We’re talking about bus routes, we’re talking about parking issues.”

What’s next for the Oxford site?

What began as a $5 million Oxford renovation plan in 2016 quickly grew to a $10 million project, and eventually a full $28 million modernization by the end of 2017.

Now it’s unclear any work will be done at the site at all.

When the board approved the 2020-21 relocation, officials said the vote was contingent on the district agreeing to dive into deliberations over Oxford’s longterm future as soon as possible. Right now, options are open.

“We could go on one side of a continuum of closing the school altogether, and on the other side of the continuum, trying to rebuild at that Oxford location,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said at the board meeting. “Or find another location altogether and put up a new school.”

Oxford Elementary is more than 100 years old, and the current buildings were constructed in 1965.

That long history means generations of Berkeley residents have memories inside those pink and beige walls. And the small campus lends itself to a tight-knit student body.

“I love Oxford,” said Board Member Judy Appel, whose two children attended the school. She said the district needs to make an effort to maintain the “deep community.”

But some families couldn’t leave fast enough once the geotechnical report came out. They accused BUSD of dangerous negligence, allowing kids to stay on an unsafe campus for the rest of the year.

Eight families have pulled their kids from Oxford already, said a district spokeswoman, who said those children have been allowed to switch schools.

The Alan Kropp report found that Oxford’s buildings are actually in good shape for their age. But the engineers explained that even if rebuilt to the utmost seismic standards, with a mat foundation, the school could still sustain enough damage in an earthquake from debris coming from the neighborhood that it would need yet another rebuilding afterward. Even one reconstruction would likely be extraordinarily costly.

Rhine, who’s led the school for seven years, said she doesn’t have a strong opinion about what happens to that campus.

“The building doesn’t make the community — it’s the people in it,” she said.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...