Fed up with the West Contra Costa school district's financial troubles, Richmond city leaders are looking at converting local elementary schools to charter schools or placing them under city control.

The City Council is hiring a consultant for as much as $10,000 to study the legal details of seeking charter school status for 10 elementary schools, including possibly letting parents decide in an election whether a school in danger of being shut down should stay open. The study will include what it would take to remove the schools entirely from the West Contra Costa district and create a separate district.

"Every time there are cuts to be made, the first thing on the list are neighborhood schools in Richmond," Councilwoman Maria Viramontes said.

The study is expected to be completed in two to three months.

Charter schools are publicly funded entities that operate under different accountability standards and regulations than traditional public schools. They typically retain ties to the local school district for funding.

Pulling local schools out of the West Contra Costa district to create a separate school district would be different. The complex process would involve the transfer and division of assets and debt.

Richmond and El Cerrito teamed for their own local school district before merging their sites in 1965 with other cities -- including Pinole, San Pablo and Hercules -- to create a regional district.

The City Council's decision Tuesday comes amid mounting fiscal woes at West Contra Costa. The school board plans to cut $10.4 million from the 2008-09 budget to offset state reductions in education spending, and it is looking at closing schools.

In addition, the school district is running out of money from Measure J, the $400 million construction bond passed in 2005. Officials now are looking at projects to cut.

"The voters of Richmond have been strong and consistent supporters of the school bond measures over the years," Councilwoman Ludmyrna Lopez said. "Cutting bond money from Richmond schools that are in greatest need of public health and safety improvements should not be an option."

The council unanimously agreed to prepare a resolution urging the school district not to delay Measure J upgrades at Leadership Charter, Nystrom Elementary, Gompers High, Kennedy High and Richmond College Preparatory.

The council based its decision on information presented at a January school bond oversight committee meeting. District officials have since informally decided not to cut funding for Kennedy High, instead opting to cut money for Pinole Valley High. Cutting Nystrom never was a serious option, West Contra Costa school board member Charles Ramsey said.

He also said Wednesday that he is incensed that district officials were not informed ahead of time about the council's discussion Tuesday night.

"They didn't even give the district a chance to speak on it," he said. "They have negative feelings about the school district, and this creates more bad feelings because there's a lack of communication."

Lopez said she contacted the district and was told that staff members are out of the office this week for mid-winter break.

Ramsey wondered how the council could say that Richmond schools are the first to lose money when 70 percent of Measure J funds have been set aside for Richmond schools, including more than $160 million for De Anza High and $100 million for Nystrom, Ford and King elementary schools.

"They're uninformed about it," Ramsey said.

Ramsey, who is also an attorney, said case law exists showing that takeovers of school districts by other public agencies is unconstitutional.

The vote to hire a consultant was not unanimous. The motion passed 5-1, with Mayor Gayle McLaughlin dissenting and Councilman Jim Rogers abstaining.

"I don't believe the city of Richmond has established that we have the expertise, the ability to go in and start trying to run schools," Rogers said.

Councilman Tom Butt recused himself from both the vote on the resolution and the consultant due to a conflict of interest. Councilman Tony Thurmond was absent.

Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or ktam@ bayareanewsgroup.com. Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or kwetzel @bayareanewsgroup.com.