Please don't close our schools.
That was one of many messages conveyed to the West Contra Costa school board during an animated meeting on how the district should go about shuttering campuses to save money.
Pumping signs begging the board to spare their respective schools, more than 100 frustrated parents, students, teachers and others crowded into DeJean Middle School's multipurpose room in Richmond to decry plans to close as many as five schools next year and five more the year after as a way to slice $3 million from the district budget.
"The last thing we need to do is close schools," said Alex, a fifth-grader at Valley View Elementary in Richmond. "The first thing we need to do is cut down on administrators."
Closing an elementary school will save the district an estimated $300,000 per year in utilities and maintenance costs, and shuttering a middle or high school will save an estimated $800,000 annually. But which schools will be targeted and how many is still up for debate; the next meeting on the issue is scheduled for Dec. 10.
With outgoing board members Karen Pfeifer and Dave Brown absent Wednesday night, board members-elect Tony Thurmond and Antonio Medrano were asked to join the discussion on the criteria and process for selecting schools. The district needs to move quickly: A final decision must be made on closures for next school year by Feb. 11.
"We don't take this lightly, and we understand it affects everybody," board member Charles Ramsey said. "But we made the decision to do it, and (the county and state) are making us stick to it. Would we rather be looking at something else? Of course."
Superintendent Bruce Harter outlined the district's budget woes, noting that leaders must deal with a $12.1 million deficit next year. Closing schools would not just save money, he said, but profit from selling the land could go toward the district's $37 million debt stemming from its near-bankruptcy in the early 1990s.
Harter suggested that the criteria include school condition, enrollment, utilization, capacity, special progress and geographical equity. While district policy calls for elementary schools to enroll 450 to 800 students, he noted that 24 of 38 elementaries are below 450. All seven middle schools fall below the suggested enrollment of 900 to 1,200, and three of the six high schools fall below the suggested population range of 1,200 to 1,800.
Harter laid out a specific time line for dealing with the closures, with the suggestion that several public meetings be held from now to Feb. 11.
Board members Wednesday listened to 31 speakers, some of whom criticized the district for waiting until after the election to tackle the controversial issue.
"Tonight, politics has never been an uglier word," said Pinole City Councilwoman Debbie Long, who was concerned that Pinole Valley High School might be one of the campuses selected for closure.
The majority of the board agreed that it would be a waste of taxpayer money to consider schools already rebuilt or scheduled for reconstruction under the district's bond program. But they hesitated to take those campuses off the table completely.
"I just can't see closing a brand-new school," board member Audrey Miles said. "We're talking about millions of dollars."
Schools that have not undergone major rebuilds and are not scheduled for new campuses include Pinole Valley and Kennedy high schools; Crespi and Adams middle schools; and several elementary schools, including Castro, Valley View, Lake, Fairmont, Grant and Stege.
West Contra Costa last considered school closures of this magnitude in 2004. On the list then were El Sobrante and Olinda elementaries in El Sobrante, Fairmont in El Cerrito and Seaview in San Pablo. Seaview was the only one closed, but not before parents and teachers fought the decision. The Seaview campus is now used as district office space.
Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or email@example.com.