RICHMOND -- Portola Middle School in El Cerrito will be renamed Fred T. Korematsu Middle School for the late Japanese American civil rights leader.

The decision was made Wednesday by the West Contra Costa School District board, which followed the advice of a committee that included two of its own members.

The committee, made up of school board President Charles Ramsey, board member Randy Enos and El Cerrito resident Jim Ghidella, recommended the name change on July 1 after listening to testimony at four community meetings and two school board meetings.

Korematsu, who grew up in Oakland, was arrested and convicted in 1942 for defying the order to transport residents of Japanese ancestry to internment camps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

A photo of civil rights icon Fred T. Korematsu is presented to the school by the Korematsu family during a dedication ceremony for the new San Leandro High
A photo of civil rights icon Fred T. Korematsu is presented to the school by the Korematsu family during a dedication ceremony for the new San Leandro High School freshman campus named after Korematsu, in San Leandro, Calif., on Friday Sept. 24, 2010. The new 68,000-square-foot state of the art building was built with funds from Measure B passed in 2006. (Anda Chu/Staff) (ANDA CHU)

Korematsu's conviction was overturned by a federal court in 1983, and he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998.

Ghidella said the idea to rename the school after Korematsu came from Ramsey, who asked him to bring the matter up before the full board in April.

Ghidella said he embraced the concept of honoring the Japanese American community, many of whom were active in the flower growing industry in El Cerrito and Richmond before and after the internment.

The new name will present an opportunity to teach about a regrettable and underpublicized episode in recent U.S. history, he said.

"Two out of seven El Cerrito residents are Asian," he said. "This is a whole side of U.S. history that I never learned when I was in school."


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The proposal had generated some division and controversy, but at Wednesday's meeting nine of 12 speakers, including Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Joni Hiramoto, favored the name change.

"Fred Korematsu stood up for the Constitution and due process under the law," Hiramoto said. "He took the hit for all of us."

The school is operating in portable classrooms on the same site it has occupied since it opened in 1951 while a new campus, scheduled for completion in October 2015, is being built about four blocks away at 7125 Donal Ave.

Some name change critics have argued that the board violated rules it established that say renaming schools should be done "only under extraordinary circumstances and after thorough study."

Ramsey and board member Todd Groves have said they think the relocation of the school away from its current site off Portola Drive constitutes a clear opportunity to revisit the name.

The board's guidelines for renaming include "individuals, living or deceased, who have made contributions of state, national or worldwide significance."

Opponents of the name change also weighed-in with emails to the district citing the historical significance of Spanish explorer Gaspar de Portola and the fact that the school's first cohort of students allegedly chose to name it after him.

Other emails suggested naming the school after people with local ties, including Don Victor Castro, who inherited the land grant for Rancho San Pablo that included present-day El Cerrito, community benefactor Sundar Shadi and the Mabuchi and Adachi families, Japanese Americans who were local residents.

Property valuations

Trustees were pleased to hear the news released earlier this month that 2014-15 assessed property valuation within the district's boundaries rose 10.75 percent from 2013-14.

It was the first time since 2007-08 that assessments, upon which property taxes are based, have risen by double-digit rates and the third assessed valuation increase in the past six years.

Assessed valuation dropped 12.26 percent in 2009-10 and 7.66 percent in 2010-11, reflecting the effects of the recession.

The assessed valuation growth will allow the district to spend less of its reserves to meet its target tax rates of $60 per $100,000 in assessed valuation on 2002 Measure D and 2005 Measure J bonds, according to a report presented at the meeting from Oakland-based KNN Public Finance.

The district is also refinancing both of those bond series to help meet the tax rate targets.

Board members were surprised last year when valuations dropped by 5.96 percent despite evidence that residential property values were increasing.

County Assessor Gus Kramer cited a sharply lowered assessment of Chevron's Richmond refinery due to a major fire in August 2012 for the downgrade.