RICHMOND -- The West Contra Costa school board Wednesday evening took a step toward renaming 63-year-old Portola Middle School in El Cerrito after Japanese American civil rights activist Fred Korematsu.

Backed by five speakers who urged adoption of the name change, the school board formed a committee consisting of two of its members and a longtime El Cerrito resident to evaluate the name-change idea and provide a recommendation at the board's July 9 meeting.

Naming the school after Korematsu would "bring focus to a lesson in history," Korematsu's daughter, Karen Korematsu, told the board.

A photo of civil rights icon Fred T. Korematsu is shown Sept. 24, 2010. (Anda Chu/Staff)
A photo of civil rights icon Fred T. Korematsu is shown Sept. 24, 2010. (Anda Chu/Staff)

Korematsu, who died in 2005, was prosecuted for refusing to join others of Japanese descent in relocating to an internment camp during World War II. He went into hiding after the internment order from President Franklin Roosevelt but was arrested in May 1942 and spent the war in a camp.

The arrest was used as a test case against the order by the American Civil Liberties Union, but Korematsu wasn't vindicated until 1983, when his conviction for violating the internment order was overturned in federal court in San Francisco. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998.

The name change idea came from school board President Charles Ramsey, who said more public awareness of Korematsu's story will "open up the opportunity to talk about what was happening in the East Bay during the war."

There was a large Japanese American community in Richmond and El Cerrito before the war, and many were involved in agriculture, particularly the flower-growing industry, said Jim Ghidella, the El Cerrito resident who will serve on the name-change committee.

When they returned from the internment, many found that their nurseries and greenhouses had been vandalized or destroyed, Ghidella said.

"This was a pivotal point in our history," Ramsey said. "We need to look at incorporating everyone's past."

Later in the meeting, trustees heard the results of an audit of the district's Adult Education program from the state Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team that suggested hiring an assistant principal, a human resource officer and an office manager.

The new personnel should be charged with placing tighter controls on cash flow and hiring and evaluating personnel, among other responsibilities.

The audit also criticized Adult Education for not using the district's personnel department "for recruiting and hiring staff, determining salary schedule placement ... and maintaining personnel files," among other issues.

The program operates at 38 sites throughout the district and has 180 staff members, including more than 100 part-time teachers.

Trustees also received an update from its bond program advisers about a plan to refinance debt from one of its six school construction bond measures to keep rates taxpayers are charged at or below $60 per $100,000 in assessed valuation.

Without growth in assessed valuation of property within the district at 8 percent or higher, tax rates for 2002 Measure D bonds "are expected to exceed the target $60 rate in 2014-15, absent other strategies," according to the report from Oakland-based KNN Public Finance in Oakland, the district's bond adviser.

The report said the 2002 D bonds require refinancing at current low interest rates, "a cash deposit and/or strong (assessed valuation) growth, depending on tax rate growth," to meet the $60 tax rate target.

State Proposition 39 permits school districts to issue new bonds only if the tax rates paid by taxpayers will be $60 per $100,000 of assessed valuation or less, according to KNN.