Richmond city leaders are considering buying West Contra Costa school district land, a plan that would infuse the cash-strapped district with $3 million to keep targeted Richmond schools open two more years.
City officials don't know where they will get the money to buy the land, and they have just three weeks to find it.
The proposal comes as the school board, facing a $13.4 million deficit next year, weighs closing campuses to save money.
The Richmond City Council is hunting for $1.5 million a year over the next two years to spare schools from closure and prevent campuses from sitting vacant and potentially attracting criminal activity. The financial aid would buy time for the district to lobby state and federal officials to forgive its multimillion-dollar debt or to persuade voters to pass a tax measure to fund neighborhood schools with low enrollment, city officials said.
Drafted by Councilwoman Maria Viramontes, the city's latest idea to possibly buy the school district's administrative office on Bissell Avenue, its warehouse on Ohio Avenue and Gompers High School on Ninth Street would supply the district with cash. In return, the city would get equity in the form of property for housing or other redevelopment.
Time is running out. The school board is scheduled to decide Feb. 11 whether to close as many as eight schools over two years to save $3.4 million annually. The proposed closure list carries 10 elementary schools, Adams Middle and Kennedy High schools in Richmond, and Portola Middle in El Cerrito. Many of the elementary schools enroll fewer than 500 children, and administrators say they cannot afford to run all of them.
Any city funding is temporary, council members said, and the school board must find a long-term answer to its financial crisis.
"The school district needs to look further," Councilwoman Ludmyrna Lopez said. "It's an ongoing problem, year to year, beyond two years, beyond five years, where the cost of running a school is the reason for where we are today."
About 150 sign-toting teachers, parents and children clad in school colors packed the council chamber Tuesday night to beg the city to save Richmond's neighborhood schools, some of which are high-performing.
"I think if you did put a tax on a measure, we would vote for it. We believe in our neighborhood schools, we want those schools to remain open," said Carolyn Sherry, whose child attends Valley View Elementary School. "I want to be able to continue to walk my child to school. I like the community that it creates."
But Tom Waller, a Richmond Chamber of Commerce board member, worries the city's financial aid won't provide a permanent answer to the school district's ongoing problem.
"K-12 public education matters a whole bunch to all of us," Waller said. "My problem is I think we are looking for a pain-free solution, and I'm just not sure there are pain-free solutions. I really worry about us reaching a solution that will not ultimately result in fewer schools, fewer teachers and staff, and fewer benefits."
If the city buys district land, the district must seek a state waiver to use the proceeds for operating costs. City officials also want an agreement with the district that includes auditing how city funds are used, setting performance standards and conducting a tax study for a future ballot measure.
Meanwhile, the city has asked the state and federal governments to forgive the district's loans, which total nearly $18 million.
Other cities in the district's jurisdiction — El Cerrito, Hercules, Pinole and San Pablo — are considering the district's appeal for financial aid. No promises have been made.
Reach Katherine Tam at 510-262-2787 or firstname.lastname@example.org.