The West Contra Costa school district board moved forward this week with a plan to close schools to save money despite impassioned and sometimes hostile pleas from hundreds of people asking members to reconsider.
Richmond police estimated that 600 to 800 people showed up at a Wednesday meeting that rolled into Thursday morning to decry the district's plan to close as many as 10 schools in the next two years to save $3 million. The start of the meeting was delayed 10 minutes as people inside DeJean Middle School's multipurpose room chanted "Let them in" and "832" after district staff locked the door, saying the room had hit capacity of 832 when it appeared otherwise. Officials directed the overflow crowd to the gym, where they could watch a telecast of the meeting. At one point, about 50 people gathered at the main entrance.
Though the district does not plan to release a list of schools to be considered for closure until next Thursday, 95 people signed up to speak on the issue, many of them representing Kennedy and Pinole Valley high schools, Portola Middle School and Lake, Stege, Grant, Olinda, Coronado, Fairmont and Ohlone elementaries. Most pleaded with the board to spare their school.
"I've come to believe that the people who are running this district don't care about kids like they say they do," said Jennifer Hansen, a teacher at Kennedy High in Richmond. "We're not Mervyns; you shouldn't just shut us down if we're having financial difficulty."
The board eventually voted 4-1, with newly sworn-in member Tony Thurmond dissenting, to approve a list of criteria for determining which schools should be targeted. The criteria include academic performance, school condition, enrollment and geographic equity. Other considerations are the possibility of alternative grade configurations such as K-8 and 6-12 schools, geographic equity and overall improved conditions for students. The board also directed staff to schedule a meeting with the various cities involved and consider schools' resale value, as shuttered campuses will be sold to pay off debt. Several school committees will be formed to aide in the process, and a final decision will be made by Feb. 11.
"These are desperate times," said board member Madeline Kronenberg, who urged those in attendance to converge on Sacramento to demand more funding for schools. "The state does not provide adequate funding for education for the children of California."
Closing an elementary school will save the district an estimated $300,000 per year in utilities, maintenance and staffing costs; shuttering a middle or high school will save about $800,000. The district must realize $1.5 million in savings through closures next year and an additional $1.5 million the year after. Officials could close five elementary schools, two middle or high schools or any combination to meet the $1.5 million mark. Students and staff would move to other schools.
Budget chief Sheri Gamba said projections show the district will be in a $13.4 million deficit situation next year. That figure already assumes $1.5 million in cost savings from school closures, and the district may not be able to meet financial obligations in the next few years.
"The next few months are going to be difficult," Gamba said. "We're going to have to make tough decisions to keep the district solvent."
School communities from around West County have been packing school board meetings since the first major discussion on school closures in November. Parents say they're concerned because they don't want to pull their children out of secure learning communities, and teachers fear the progress they're making in classrooms will be lost. Many criticized the board for waiting until after the election — and voter passage of the Measure D parcel tax — to raise the issue.
"You've known about these school closures for a while, yet you lobbied for Measure D," said Pinole Valley High senior Sean Duckworth. "Now that you got your Measure D, you don't care about us anymore."
The meeting became less rowdy as parents trickled out and Wednesday evening turned into Thursday morning. A decision on the criteria did not come until about 1:30 a.m. — after the board tabled the matter to discuss approval of the final environmental impact report for relocating El Cerrito's Portola Middle School to the Castro Elementary site. The board eventually approved the EIR with a 3-2 vote; President Audrey Miles and newly sworn-in board member Antonio Medrano dissented.
Many criticized the district for the way it handled the large crowd. DeJean's multipurpose room appeared not to be at capacity, and many parents and children were directed to the gym while city officials were let in. Some wondered why the meeting wasn't moved to a larger venue. Others were upset that cable television did not air the meeting live because of technical difficulties.
Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or email@example.com.