West Contra Costa Unified School District board members this week delayed voting to close the El Cerrito elementary school after the 2008-09 school year in order to get an opinion on whether they can legally make such a decision before the state Environmental Quality Act process is completed.
Superintendent Bruce Harter withdrew a staff recommendation to close the school in 2009 after board member Charles Ramsey said he would like to find out whether the district would be susceptible to a lawsuit under state law if it were to make a decision now.
"I don't see a written legal opinion here," Ramsey said, noting that board members asked for one from the staff earlier this month.
Ramsey's statements came after those opposed to closing Castro warned at Wednesday's meeting that a decision would make the district vulnerable to legal action because the closure is tied to plans for a new middle school and the state Environmental Quality Act process.
"You are not allowed to make a decision until the CEQA process is over," said Robert Brower, an attorney. "You're inviting the Castro neighborhood to file a lawsuit."
Castro Elementary School, located on Donal Avenue, is being closed to make way for a new Portola Middle School, which the district plans to build by renovating existing buildings and adding new ones. The staff has determined that Portola, located on Navellier Street, is seismically unsafe because of a landslide and cannot be rebuilt at the current site.
The district is in the beginning stages of the Environmental Quality Act process of the proposal.
Castro's students eventually will be moved to other schools, likely Harding, Fairmont, Stege and Madera elementaries.
Board members informally agreed Wednesday that Castro should not be closed in the fall of 2008 as discussed in previous meetings, and Harter sent a letter home to Castro parents Thursday that said kindergarten registration will go on as planned for the next school year.
Harter said he wanted the board to make a decision so that parents and teachers at the school can plan for the future. He said that state code allows the district to close a school, and such a decision is exempt under the Environmental Quality Act process.
"My recommendation is based on the fact that we ought to tell parents what the status of their school is," Harter said.
Closing the school in 2009 is a departure from the stance district staff and most board members held earlier this month when they said they thought the school should be closed this fall instead.
Board President Karen Pfeifer said she thinks waiting a year will help the district plan to move the school's large population of full-inclusion special education students, who share classes with mainstream youngsters.
There has been much discussion about how the district plans to move the students. Parents and teachers say it will be difficult to replicate the full-inclusion environment.
Steve Collins, who oversees the district's special education program, said it will be difficult but definitely possible.
"You can't get the camaraderie at Castro and pick it up and move it to Harding, Fairmont or Murphy," he said, adding that staff members will do their best to imitate the program as closely as possible. "Getting the additional time will allow us to plan a little bit more thoroughly."
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