Residents near El Cerrito High School are accustomed to seeing 1,200 students scurry to and from school each weekday. And many residents make it a point to avoid Ashbury Avenue, which often becomes clogged with cars before and after school.
But soon, these residents could face several hundred additional youths — and vehicles — because of a tentative plan by the West Contra Costa school district to move 600 additional students to the campus.
In February, the district's board approved a proposal to temporarily move the 600 students from seismically unsafe Portola Middle School to a temporary campus set up at El Cerrito High. Though the district plans to rebuild Portola, board members said the students need to be moved immediately.
"The sooner we can get kids out of a building that is unsafe, the better," board member Tony Thurmond said. "That's my top priority."
The plan calls for the Portola students to use the temporary campus at El Cerrito High for three years. El Cerrito high schoolers no longer use the temporary structures since their new, permanent school opened in January.
The board decided that moving the youths to the El Cerrito site would cost about $1 million, far cheaper than the $3.7 million it would cost to put them in a portable campus at the Portola site.
Neighbors of El Cerrito High, as well as parents and students from both schools and El Cerrito city officials, have asked the district to reconsider, citing concerns about increased traffic and fears that violence, drug use or crime may increase at El Cerrito High. Others fear the "temporary" campus could become permanent if the district runs out of bond funds to rebuild Portola Middle School.
"You have all this noise, all the traffic, all the students who are going to be at the facility, and that impacts the community," El Cerrito Councilman Bill Jones said. "The school district claims that they'll save money by going (to El Cerrito), but they certainly won't be making friends with the neighbors."
Many said that keeping Portola students closer to their own school would be less disruptive for all.
"There's quite a bit of opposition from the people I've talked to," said Eric Miller, parent of a Portola seventh-grader. "I don't know anyone who likes the idea of putting them at El Cerrito."
Miller said he's unsure whether many Portola parents think there's an urgent need to get the middle schoolers off the campus.
"I'm actually torn about that. I'm trying to understand the seismic risk and how serious it is," Miller said.
Thurmond and board members Antonio Medrano and Audrey Miles have said the El Cerrito campus is a better choice because it's cheaper, takes less money out of the budget to rebuild Portola and can be converted quickly.
"I really feel strongly that we should be working closely with the city of El Cerrito and the community to minimize impacts that come with this decision," Thurmond said. "I view this as a temporary solution to a safety problem. In no way would I support this as a backhanded long-term way of getting around building Portola."
The district has been grappling with what to do about Portola for some time. Officials discovered a few years ago that the school sits atop a historical landslide that could move during an earthquake. Retrofitting is not an option because the problem is not the buildings but the ground beneath. Rebuilding so that the campus sits on the lower pad of the site poses expensive accessibility problems, officials said.
A plan to rebuild at nearby Fairmont Elementary ultimately was reversed after public outcry. The district now plans to shutter Castro Elementary in El Cerrito and build Portola there within the next few years.
A group of advocates has been pleading with the district to remove Portola students from the site immediately. New board members Thurmond and Medrano took up the issue shortly after their December swearing-in.
El Cerrito neighbors say they have been patient during three years of construction noise and dust. Another 600 students on the site could mean trouble, they say.
"My experience has been that it's not such a great idea to have the students together," said Tom Lederer, a former high school teacher who lives 10 doors from El Cerrito High. "The older students become somewhat of a negative influence on the younger students. It tends not to work so well."
Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.