Olinda Elementary parent Jennifer Williams has not told her 5-year-old son that his school could be closed next year.
Williams is waiting to see whether the West Contra Costa school district will in fact shutter the El Sobrante campus, then she will break it to her kindergartner gently.
"This is his very first school," Williams said at a community meeting on school closures Thursday. "He's made his friends, he has his teachers. It would really affect him."
The school district, facing a multimillion dollar budget shortfall, plans to close as many as eight schools in the next two years to save $3.4 million. On the possible closure list are 13 campuses that include 10 elementaries, Kennedy High and Adams Middle in Richmond and Portola Middle in El Cerrito.
Between 200 and 300 people attended Thursday's meeting, in which Superintendent Bruce Harter explained the need for the closures and answered questions from the community. Two scenarios were presented, along with a timeline for how district leaders will make a final decision in February.
Supporters of Kennedy High, Portola Middle and Castro, Olinda, Lake, Stege, Coronado and Valley View elementaries waved signs demanding that the district save their respective schools while young children wiggled on laps. Harter's presentation was interrupted twice by people yelling for the district to reconsider the closures.
Concerns raised ranged from how families will get to schools farther away from their homes and why high-performing schools such as Coronado, Valley View and Olinda are being targeted. Others were concerned that closing Kennedy High and sending students elsewhere could put the district's teenagers in danger.
"There's a line that can't be crossed," said Richmond resident Antwon Cloird, referring to gang "turfs" in North, Central and South Richmond. "You're going to open up a war zone. What are you going to do for the safety of our kids?"
Harter stressed that the closure list is meant to serve as a launchpad for discussion, and the school board ultimately could choose other campuses when it makes a final decision in February.
"It is about helping our community members understand what our financial situation is. How we get to this place isn't because we want to close schools, but because we're in a financial corner where there's nowhere to escape."
Closing an elementary will save about $300,000, while closing a middle or high school will save $800,000. Students at affected schools would be moved to other campuses, and the property would be sold to reduce the district's debt. The exception would be Kennedy, which could be used for district offices or charter or alternative school space, Harter said.
About half the schools on the list ultimately could be targeted for closure, while the rest could stay open. Three — Kennedy High and El Sobrante and Coronado elementaries — are on both scenario lists, meaning that the possibility of their closure is strong.
"School closures are always hard no matter where they are," Harter said. "When the board finally makes a decision, there are people who are going to be very, very unhappy, and I assume that's what's going to happen here as well."
Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.