BY N’JERI EATON//
At the December 10 meeting, the West Contra Costa County school board will discuss a new proposal that would have Richmond’s Leadership Charter School move onto the site of Castro Elementary School. The proposal was abrupt and some say it speaks to the discord among board members.
Veteran school board member Charles Ramsey placed the Leadership relocation on the agenda. Ramsey says that if Castro closes as planned in June, then they should consider putting Leadership at the site. The charter school is currently housed at Gompers High School in Richmond, which is also set to close at the end of the year.
The meeting’s original agenda was to swear in its two latest members: Antonio Medrano, a retired teacher and Tony Thurmond, a member of Richmond’s city council. The inaugural meeting usually has a celebratory spirit, filled with friends, family members and other supporters. However, Medrano believes the Leadership proposal was put on the agenda as a divisive strategy with the intent to get a lot of reaction. “To do that side run, on the remaining days of the old school board to me is not fair,” said Medrano. “I would use a stronger word but I’ll just say it’s not fair.”
Medrano is not only against the move but he also disagrees with how it was proposed. He only learned of the proposal through an email. After talking with contacts at both schools, Medrano realized very few people were informed about the potential relocation. “We have to involve the community and it has to be transparent,” he said. Medrano believes the old school board members have a history of ignoring community input. “What they’re doing is indicative of what they’ve been doing for the last four years,” he said.
In fact, Medrano and others have said school board president Karen Pfeifer, Madeline Kronenberg, and Charles Ramsey had a tendency to vote together, creating a 3-2 divide that was impossible to penetrate. Valerie Snider, a member of the Save Castro Park and School group, says their alliance made the two remaining school board members, Audrey Miles and David Brown, “ineffectual.” Brown decided not to run for reelection.
With this thought in mind, Snider and her group members directed their efforts to prevent Pfeifer’s reelection in November. Despite having over $100,000 in campaign contributions, Pfeifer lost the race. The election brought two new school board members, Medrano and Thurmond, with strong community ties. Snider believes their addition will change the dynamics of the school board and will provide school board member Miles with much needed support on votes. “We’ve broken that block now that Karen Pfiefer is gone,” said Snider. “And not only are we happy that she’s gone but we actually feel excited about Antonio Medrano and Tony Thurmond.”
Although many residents have embraced them, not everyone is happy with Medrano and Thurmond joining the school board. School board member Charles Ramsey is one of their most vocal critics. “I oppose both of them. They’re good people but I don’t believe we share the same philosophy,” he said.
Before they were even sworn into office, the new elects had their first challenge.
On November 12, the board held an open meeting to discuss school closure criteria. President Karen Pfeifer was noticeably absent. The district’s superintendent Dr. Bruce Harter presented his case for the closures through a series of charts and graphs that illustrated the dire financial straits the districts now faces.
Enrollment has been steady decreasing over the last five years, an almost 12 percent decline since 2002. Year after year, expenses have continued to grow even as the budget shrinks. The district will need to cut $1.5 million each year for the next two years according to the approved budget. They plan to reach their goal by selling district owned property, reducing services, containing the costs of benefits and school consolidation. Closing an elementary school will save $300,000 and $800,000 for a middle or high school.
School board member Ramsey projects they will need to close five elementary schools, one middle school and one high school. Its tough. It’s not a nice place to be,” he said. “Life does not have an infinite amount of resources. You have to try to make good decisions within the tax base that you have.”
Both Medrano and Thurmond believe the district should examine test scores, facility conditions and geographic equity of every school in the district before making a decision about closures. This would include even recently built schools such as LovonyaDeJean in Richmond and El Cerrito High School, a suggestion that increased the divide between them and the old board members. “I don’t think that’s compliant with our fiduciary duties to be good stewards of the money that we have been possession of,” said Ramsey. “I think that would be a tragic mistake.”
Save Castro leader Snider believes the school board had an obsession with rebuilding schools in El Cerrito. Before the November elections, three of the five school board members, including the president, were residents of the city. “They continually said El Cerrito needs a middle school. However this is not the El Cerrito Unified School District, its the West Contra Costa Unified School District,” Snider said. Miles, Medrano and Thurmond are all Richmond residents who will bring attention to struggling area schools like Kennedy High and Adams Middle School.
The school board next major contention may also involve Castro’s site. The school is expected to close in June. However, that may change if Medrano has his way. “It’s not going to close. We have the votes to say no. The old board: yes. The new board: no,” he said.
The December 10 meeting will held at 6:30PM at Lovonya DeJean Middle School and will be last meeting of the year.