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Mounting legal fees for SEC investigation rile some WCCUSD residents

As word of four contracts to be considered by the West Contra Costa school board tonight related to the SEC investigation into the district’s $1.6 billion bond program has spread, some residents are questioning why taxpayers should foot the bill for responses to subpoenas for Board President Charles Ramsey and Trustee Madeline Kronenberg.

In addition, I question why the district placed these contracts on its “consent calendar,” which is supposed to be used only for “routine” items with no discussion. I also question why the contracts themselves are not attached to the agenda packet.

When I spoke to Ramsey yesterday afternoon about these issues, I started off the conversation by saying there were some “controversial” things on the agenda (referring to these contracts).

“That’s not controversial,” Ramsey said. “I’ve not gotten one phone call. I haven’t gotten one email, so it’s not controversial.”

When I told him that I had received phone calls and e-mails about this, he responded: “Why would people call the media and not call me?”

Ramsey said that contracts have always been placed on the consent calendar, so he didn’t see any problem with that. Debbie Haynie, the superintendent’s executive secretary, said it’s not the district’s practice to actually attach the contracts to the agenda packets.

Even more surprising, the district doesn’t even list the contracts on the agenda. It merely lists the heading “contracts,” and states: “Permission is requested of the Board of Education to approve contracts as detailed, dated Nov. 12, 2014.”

The amounts are also not listed. Instead, under “Fiscal Impacts,” the agenda states: “As noted per contracts summary.”

This forces the public to then go online and scroll through the entire agenda packet to find a summary of contracts to be approved. The summary includes short descriptions and dollar amounts, but leaves out other important details. For example, it was unclear whether the dollar amounts listed for contract increases referred to new money or to the new total amount. It is also unclear whether Madeline Kronenberg received an individual subpoena or whether her representation is related to the district’s subpoena. Further, it is not clear why Associate Superintendent Sheri Gamba was being deposed or when the deposition was scheduled.

Trustee Todd Groves told me yesterday that he thought the additional amounts listed were cumulative, not incremental. But I found out today from the district’s Business Services Department that was not true. In fact, the amounts are IN ADDITION to the current contracts. It’s surprising that Groves didn’t know this.

The district’s failure to transparently reveal such information has prompted resident Charles Reichmann and others to ask the board to delay its vote on these contracts. With Reichmann’s permission, I am posting his “Open Letter on Ramsey, Kronenberg Legal Fees” below, which he sent to Trustee Todd Groves, along with copies to Trustees Randall Enos and Elaine Merriweather:

“Dear Todd,

I was distressed to read in the paper that the WCCUSD Board will soon vote on whether to allocate an additional $200k to pay Charles Ramsey’s brother’s law firm in connection with the SEC investigation. And another $100k in defense of the person you’ve described as your “close ally” on the Board, Madeline Kronenberg.

I hereby request that the Board delay its scheduled vote on this matter for one month to allow more opportunity for public discussion.

You have been quoted in the paper a couple of times saying that it is only right that the WCCUSD pay Charles Ramsey’s legal fees because the investigation arises out of work he did while on the Board. This proposition is not at all self-evident to your constituents. First, I don’t understand why this isn’t exactly the kind of matter that your insurer would pay for pursuant to the board’s D&O policy. Even if you ignore the rest of this email, can you please explain why the District’s insurer isn’t obligated to provide a defense? Second, it is unseemly that Charles Ramsey is taking this final opportunity to enrich one of his close associates, in this case his brother. (Ismail Ramsey and his firm are highly regarded and certainly are competent to handle investigations of this kind. That is not at issue.) Third, Ismail Ramsey’s firm has made it clear that their duties run entirely to Charles and not to the District so any argument that benefits from this engagement inure to the good of District taxpayers is unavailing. Charles Ramsey and his attorneys are pursuing one thing and one thing alone – the exoneration of Charles Ramsey. They are not at all concerned with the best interests of the WCCUSD, however they may understand them.

Finally, it is noteworthy that you seem entirely convinced that the SEC investigation will uncover no wrongdoing on the part of Ramsey or any others associated with the bond program. You have been a trustee for only a couple of years and recently wrote that you are still getting up to speed on the bond program, so you may lack a sound basis for having reached such a conclusion. The fact that the SEC opened an investigation is a pretty extraordinary thing in itself, and the fact that the Board apparently now feels compelled to spend in excess of $500k of District funds in response to what you call a “pretty deep examination” may end up meaning that we all will be unpleasantly surprised about what the investigation uncovers. As a District taxpayer I certainly do not want to be paying the attorneys’ fees of WCCUSD personnel whom the government elects to prosecute for malfeasance. Do you feel the same way, or will you continue to assert that since the conduct happened while they were in the District’s employ, it is only proper that we continue to pay for a first-class defense?

Very truly yours,

Charles Reichmann

I have also received the following comment from district resident Anton Jungherr:

“Note that all of the contracts are illegal as they all started before Board approval.

Kronenberg contract started October 1, 2014, prior to the election!

Why does Kronenberg need a criminal defense attorney to respond to records request?”

However, the original contracts for Ramsey and F1 Discovery were previously approved.

Do you think the board should delay its vote on the contracts for one month?

Posted on Wednesday, November 12th, 2014
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 16 Comments »

Some West Contra Costa residents, charter supporters and a candidate sound off about funding fears in school board race

After my first story about campaign spending in the West Contra Costa school board race was published in the Contra Costa Times, I received an e-mail string that included a letter from 29 West Contra Costa district residents to their “friends and neighbors” expressing concerns about the large amount of funding from charter supporters in the race.

I also received a letter to the editor from the California Charter Schools Association Advocates in response to the story, as well as a letter to “friends and neighbors” from developer Stephen Chamberlin and his wife, Susan, explaining why they have invested money in the race both individually and as funders of the Education Matters Independent Expenditure Committee.

A follow-up story that mentioned both letters to “friends and neighbors” and included a quote from incumbent Madeline Kronenberg about her concerns was published Friday in the Contra Costa Times.

After I wrote that story, I received a call from candidate Peter Chau informing me that that California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee had paid for a “hit piece” attacking his candidacy. Since I had been unaware that the charter advocates were also funding opposition to Chau’s campaign when I wrote my story, I offered to post a short statement from Chau in response on my blog.

I am posting all four of these separate communications on my blog so that readers can see in one place some of the arguments being made by some residents, charter advocates and candidates. Please note that I have not fact-checked the letters and that they reflect the opinions of those who wrote them.

I have also received a call from Elizabeth Block’s son expressing concerns about other media reports that have focused solely on the charter funding, without also mentioning the large amount of funding from contractors, architects and labor unions received by Kronenberg and Chau. It is not possible for me to write another story about this issue before the election tomorrow.

However, I will provide links to the campaign contributions for the candidates and list some of the largest contributors to Kronenberg and Chau’s campaign below, so readers can see that charter advocates are not the only ones pouring money into this race.

Here is the letter from 29 West Contra Costa school district residents:

“Our Schools Are Not For Sale

Dear Friends and Neighbors,

We are WCCUSD parents concerned about the infusion into our school board election of campaign money from deep-pocketed charter school supporters.

We live and send our kids to school in our diverse, complex, and challenging community. We send our kids to public school because we believe in neighborhood schools and the communities they foster. We can tell you that no magic bullet is going to solve the challenges of public education. Rather, creating success in public schools means rolling up your sleeves and working with your child’s teachers, administrators, and district staff on behalf of all students. We urge you to vote for school board candidates who know that our schools must serve ALL students, not just the selected children of engaged parents.

Charter schools concern us because they siphon off students and money from the other schools in
the district, without sharing the challenges of educating ALL students.

Inflammatory campaign ads, flyers, and phone calls want you to believe that the district has wasted money meant for kids and refurbished facilities. In fact, bond money has been well spent. More than 35 schools have been replaced or refurbished through the bond program since 2000, and the district’s general obligation bonds received A+ ratings earlier this year.

Who is funding this campaign of deception? Charter Schools PAC of Sacramento and Education Matters, an organization funded by developer Steve Chamberlin, founder of the Chamberlin Foundation, have pumped over $260,000 into the campaigns of school board candidates Liz Block and Valerie Cuevas and the associated smear campaign against current Board member Madeline Kronenberg. The Chamberlin Foundation acquired the former Windrush School in El Cerrito and leases the facility to Summit Charter School.

We urge you to vote for candidates who know our district, have attended school in our district and have sent their kids to schools in our district, and understand that our schools must educate ALL students. Finally, we urge you to vote for neighborhood schools and the candidates who have not taken money from charter school funders. Vote for Chau, Kronenberg, and Phillips for West Contra Costa Unified School District Governing Board.

Concerned WCCUSD parents,

Joanna Pace, David Miller, Eric Miller, Patty Enrado, David Rossi, Leslie Weir, Bobbie Dowling, Kelli Barram, Evangeline Ireland, Kathy Guarneri, Pamela Gilbert-Snyder, Heidi Bartsch, Sharon Johnson, Paul Gilbert-Snyder, Catherine Collen, Nancy Donovan, Becky Jonas, Alonn Ilan, Lisa Tsering, Kerry Radcliffe, Camille Mulligan, Franco Corvasce, Nerissa Wu, Mark DeVito, David Whitenack, Jen Komaromi, JJ Thorp, Kim Walker and Monet Zulpo-Dane”

Please note that I received several calls and e-mails from other district residents who said they disagreed with the views of the parents in the above letter.

Here is the letter to the editor from the California Charter Schools Association Advocates:

“Contra Costa County has some very important elections this November 4. Perhaps the most important are those at the bottom of the ballot – the local school board races. These elections are high stakes for children and families, especially moderate and low-income families who rely on public schools for their future.

The upcoming elections hold the promise for real progress in public schools. West Contra Costa schools, for example, have amazing teachers and staff doing great things for children. Things everyone should be proud of. Yet, the district’s elected leaders have failed students. Some have even used the district’s construction program for their own political gain, sticking taxpayers with high taxes, lawsuits, and even a federal investigation, while construction companies fund their political futures.

We support two strong candidates for West Contra Costa school board, Valerie Cuevas and Elizabeth Block. While we work with charter schools, we are supporting these candidates, who don’t have any direct charter school connection, because they represent the promise of progress and leadership for all of west county’s public school children.

Gary Borden
Executive Director, California Charter Schools Association Advocates”

Here is the letter from the Chamnberlins:

“To: Our Friends and Neighbors
From: Susan and Steve Chamberlin, Richmond Residents

There is much discussion surrounding this year’s elections, including the school board races. Honest debate is healthy, and we want to be clear about our involvement. We have nothing to hide.

We think school board leadership is incredibly important, as do many others in our community: parents, teachers, community leaders and organizations, and other residents. Many people before us vetted the candidates and, in solidarity, decided to support strong, ethical leaders. We are standing alongside these individuals, and donating significantly to give voice to the group.

In hopes of honoring the current healthy debate, we also wanted to address a few statements made by Madeline Kronenberg and Peter Chau.

THE STATEMENT: ‘Corporate outsiders (are) trying to destroy our public schools….and BUY the school board.’ – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her website

THE FACTS: For more than a decade, construction companies across the state have funneled over $2.5 million into the West Contra Costa bond measures and school board races. Madeline Kronenberg and Peter Chau have been the recipients of their largess. In fact, this election season, Madeline has reported about $100,000, primarily from big outside construction companies. All of these firms directly or indirectly do business with the district. Most people consider this to be “pay for play.”

Let’s be clear: Madeline opposed campaign finance reform for WCCUSD in 2010 that would have limited campaign contributions. So who exactly are the corporate outsiders, and who exactly has been trying to buy the elections? You decide.

THE STATEMENT: The Chamberlins are trying to “unseat me and put in a team that will work to change everything we’ve been building in the district over the past eight years.” – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her Facebook page

THE FACTS: We have to concede, in some ways, that this is true. We would like to improve a few things:

· Our children’s academic performance: Our schools and students used to out-perform Oakland (an admittedly low bar), yet the Oakland schools leapfrogged our overall academic performance in 2010. This is not progress.

· Our children’s college readiness: More than HALF of our high school graduates don’t meet the basic admissions requirements to even apply to the Cal State or University of California systems, as reported by the California Department of Education. This is unacceptable.

· Our prioritization of facility improvements: Yes, our new school buildings are beautiful. But the current board leadership has prioritized extravagant facilities (like the $21 million football stadium for El Cerrito High School) while students in Richmond still learn in windowless classrooms. Our bond program is over 15 years old. How did this happen under our school board’s watch?

THE STATEMENT: “They (California Charter School Association) are targeting races across the state to make sure we have charter-friendly school boards.” – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her Facebook page

THE FACTS: This too is partly true, except in this race, the charter association does not have ‘pro-charter’ candidates. Yes, Liz Block and Valerie Cuevas appear to be open to parents having quality educational options, but above all, they’re focused on district schools, ensuring instruction – not construction – is the number one priority. Both have deep experience in improving district schools and that’s why the leaders of the BlackBoard are supporting them, along with teachers and families who want something better for their kids. It’s also why the Contra Costa Times called Liz Block, Valerie Cuevas and Raquel Donoso (another great candidate), ‘a trio that deserves your votes….Indeed, it’s been a long time since the district has had trustees of their caliber. Residents deserve a better school board.’

THE STATEMENT: ‘For-Profit Charter Schools…’ – Peter Chau, a reference made repeatedly at candidate forums

THE FACTS: This is just flat wrong. There are eight public charter schools in the district boundaries. All eight are run by education not-for-profits.

THE STATEMENT: ‘Charters are not required to hold public board meetings…so there is no possibility of transparency…’ – Madeline Kronenberg at the Contra Costa Times endorsement interview

THE FACTS: Surely, after eight years on the school board, Madeline must know this is patently false. The California Education Code is clear on this matter. Directly from the state website, “Although charter schools are exempt from most laws applicable to school districts, they are not exempt from laws that generally apply to public agencies, including the legal requirement to hold open meetings.” California Government Code Section 54950 et. seq.

THE STATEMENT: Public charter schools “leave a concentration of our most disadvantaged and challenged families in our neighborhood schools … [but] 83% [of charter schools perform] the same or below the traditional schools – only 17% are better…” – Madeline Kronenberg, as posted on her website

THE FACTS: Let’s talk about the charter schools in our district. Families here are choosing among five charter schools that have been around long enough to have state test results.

· The state standard for schools is an 800 in the Academic Performance Index

· Of ALL the middle and high schools in the district, only five schools reached the state goal of 800; four are charter schools and one is the selective Middle College High

· The charter schools here are required by state law to be non-selective and have open enrollment via a public lottery; these schools work hard to recruit those students that most rely on a transformational educational experience

· The local charter schools also, in total, have higher shares of disadvantaged students and students of color than the district

So, yes, the charter schools here are performing well. It’s no surprise that every charter school in the district currently has a waitlist. And for those charter schools that are not performing well, the district and the county can close them, and they should. All kids deserve a great school.

Let’s remember, the charter-district debate is a diversion. Parents just want their children to have access to an excellent education. There are some great district schools with tremendous leaders and teachers doing amazing things; we should celebrate these schools and honor these educators. In addition, there are great charter schools with an impressive track record. All our kids deserve to have access to schools like these.

We will continue to support what works for kids. We’re a retired couple who has been fortunate late in life, and we’ve committed to try to support positive change for kids in our own community. Some people may not like every donation or investment we make on behalf of kids, but we’ll continue to listen and learn.

The best interest of students will always be our North Star.

Thank you for reading.”

Here is Chau’s response to a mailer funded by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee, which questions his qualifications to run for school board:

“As a homegrown product of this school district, I know what works and what doesn’t work in our school district. In 2004, I served as student board member. I voted against devastating budget cuts, bringing national media attention to West Contra Costa schools. I worked (and found!) local solutions to save sports, libraries, counselors, and 10% of jobs. In 2008, I came back to organize grass-roots support for Measure D, another local measure to support our schools – without increasing taxes.

My only ambition has been clear: to ensure a fair shake for every West County student, the same fair shake I received. I grew up broke in tough Richmond neighborhoods with a single mom. Instead of becoming another statistic, I chose success. Thanks to great neighborhood schools, I graduated from Dartmouth College in 2008 and UC Hastings College of the Law in 2014.

I’ve had to overcome significant adversity – the same adversity our kids face – to achieve success. I am a fresh, independent voice that our school board needs. For instance, I believe that our school district should targeting student loan debt as a recruitment tool for teachers. I know that Millennials like me prioritize student loan debt repayment programs when making career choices. Look at my Facebook page for more information:

I’ll never be able to match Wall Street or millioniaire spending. However, I know that voters want the very best for students. I know what works and what doesn’t work. That’s why I ask for your vote. #votechau”

Here’s where you can see a breakdown of all the money being spent on behalf of each of the 10 candidates in the race:

Elizabeth Block:

Peter Chau:

Otheree Christian:

Valerie Cuevas:

Raquel Donoso:

Madeline Kronenberg:

Elaine Merriweather:

Mister Phillips:

Chester Stevens:

Ayana Kirkland Young:

Although my stories have already detailed expenditures by the California Charter Schools Association Advocates Independent Expenditure Committee, Education Matters and the Chamberlins, I am posting an updated list below, reflecting information filed as of Oct. 31, along with a short list of major contributors to Block, Chau, Cuevas, Donoso, Kronenberg and Merriweather.

California Charter Schools Association Advocates: $83,030.55 in support of Block; $59,445.97 in support of Cuevas; $22,335.16 to oppose Chau; $113,502.31 to oppose Kronenberg.

Education Matters: $87,337.96 in support of Block; $61,871.35 in support of Cuevas; $5,271.17 to oppose Chau; $30,448.21 to oppose Kronenberg.

Students for Education Reform: $1,340.16 in support of Block; $1,340.16 in support of Cuevas

Elizabeth Block direct contributions: $44,470 (including $15,000 from John Scully of the Making Waves charter and $5,000 from the Chamberlins)

Valerie Cuevas direct contributions: $16,595 (including $2,500 from the Chamberlins, $2,464 in non-monetary contributions and a $900 loan to herself)

Peter Chau direct contributions: $39,850. (Chau did not fill in the occupations of most of his donors, so it is difficult to discern who his contributors are. However, when comparing his contributors to Kronenberg’s, it is easier to see that his contributions include: $5,000 from Powell and Partners Architects; $5,000 from architect Wallace Boyd Gordon; $3,000 from AEKO technology consulting; $3,000 from Sheet Metal Workers International Assoc. PAC; $2,500 from Amanco contractor Herman Blackmon and his wife; $2,500 from Davillier-Sloan labor management consultant; $2,500 from Interactive Resources Architects and Engineers (Tom Butt); $2,500 from Plumbers, Steamfitters, Refrigeration and Pipline Local Union; $2,500 from IBEW PAC, $2,000 from Architects Chad Hamilton and Susan Aitken; $1,500 from Operating Engineers Local PAC; $1,500 from the Plumbing Industry Consumer Protection Fund; $1,500 from architect Douglas Davis; $1,000 from IBEW PAC; $1,000 from Employers Advocate consultant; $1,000 from WLC architect Kevin Macquarrie and his wife; $500 from Hibser Yamauchi Architects; $500 from school facilities consultants Matthew and Janelle Pettler; $500 from Jay and Karen Leong Fenton of Rubicon; $250 from Sally Swanson Architects; and $100 from the Teamsters Union.)

Raquel Donoso direct contributions: $26,920 (including a $5,000 loan to herself, $2,000 from the Chamberlins, $1,500 from Plumbing Industry Consumer Protection Fund, $1,000 from an IBEW PAC, $1,000 from Public Employees Local 1 and $1,050 from Carlos Donoso in Torrance, CA.)

Elaine Merriweather direct contributions: $5,590 (including $1,500 from the Seville Group; $1,500 from Stephen Chamberlin; and $1,000 from Public Employees Union Local 1.)

Madeline Kronenberg direct contributions: $102,323 (including $7,500 from the Seville Group; $7,500 from Powell & Partners Architects; $7,500 from Architect Wallace Boyd Gordon; $6,000 from WLC Architects, $3,500 from Hibser-Yamauchi Architects; $2,500 from Local 342 PAC; $2,000 from AEKO technology consultants; $1,000 from H&M Mechanical Group; $1,000 from Alliance Engineering Consultants; and $1,000 from architect Douglas Davis.

Are you concerned about the amount of money spent in this race?

Posted on Monday, November 3rd, 2014
Under: Election, West Contra Costa school district | 17 Comments »

Nearly 100 candidates seek school board seats in Contra Costa County

As the election filing deadline neared in Contra Costa County on Friday, nearly 100 candidates had taken out papers for more than 20 school board races.

The filing deadline will be extended to 5 p.m. Wednesday in 11 districts where some incumbents are not seeking re-election. These include: The Acalanes, Brentwood, Byron, John Swett, Lafayette, Moraga, Mt. Diablo, Orinda, Pittsburg, Walnut Creek and West Contra Costa districts.

Just before the filing deadline, it appeared that nearly all of the races would be contested, with most incumbents facing challengers. Here is a list of the races and candidates who had qualified for the ballot by 5 p.m. Friday, followed by potential candidates who had taken out papers, but had not yet completed all the ballot requirements.

County Board of Education, Area 2: Incumbent Christine Deane and Ray Andersen.

County Board of Education, Area 4: Incumbent Richard Asadoorian and Mike Maxwell.

County Board of Education, Area 5: Incumbent Cynthia Ruehling and Jeff Belle.

Community College, Ward 1: Incumbent John Marquez and Cheryl Sudduth.

Community College, Ward 3: Tim Farley and incumbent Matthew Rinn.

Community College, Ward 4: Incumbent John Nejedly (unopposed).

Acalanes: Incumbent Susan (Susie) Epstein, incumbent Nancy Kendzierski, Kristen Correll and Robert Hockett.

Acalanes (short term): Incumbent J. Richard Whitmore (unopposed).

Antioch Unified School District: Incumbent Joy Motts, Incumbent Gary Hack and Debra Vinson and Walter Ruehlig.

Brentwood: Incumbent Emil Geddes, incumbent Heather Partida, John A. Fjeldstad, Scott S. Dudek, Susan Wallace, Johnny Rodriguez, Christina Bell and Marci Lapriore.

Byron Union: Incumbent Jill Marlene Sprenkel, Felicia Schweller and Tania Salinas. Not yet qualified: Karri Jo Murayama.

Byron (short term): Incumbent Betty Sanchez. Not yet qualified: Gina Larmar Parish.

Canyon Elementary: Incumbent David James Smith, incumbent Ian Llewellyn and incumbent Geronimo Bernard.

John Swett: Incumbent Brian Colombo, Michael Kirker and Deborah A. Brandon.

Knightsen: Incumbent Liesel Williams, Patrick Hulleman and Kristen L. Fuller, incumbent Ralph Adam McMeans and Robin Denise Pastor.

Lafayette: Incumbent Teresa Gerringer and incumbent David Gerson and Suzy Pak.

Liberty: Incumbent Roy Ghiggeri, incumbent Daron Spears, incumbent Joanne Louise Byer and Pauline Allred.

Martinez: Incumbent Deidre Siguenza, incumbent Roberta “Bobbi” Horack and Ronald Skrehot.

Moraga: Incumbent Parker Colvin, Heather O’Donnell and Jonathan Nickens.

Moraga (short term): Not yet qualified: Heather o’Donnell.

Mt. Diablo: Incumbent Linda Mayo, incumbent Cheryl Hansen, Michael Langley, Herbert Lee, Debra Mason and James Ryan Egnor-Keil.

Oakley: Incumbent Gloria Jean Lott, incumbent Mark Jordan and incumbent Arthur Fernande.

Orinda: Incumbent Juliane Rossiter, Hillary Shayne Weiner, Carol Brown and Jason Kaune. Not yet qualified: incumbent Christopher Clark Severson.

Pittsburg: Incumbent Joe Arenivar, incumbent Duane Smith and De’Shawn Woolridge. Not yet qualified: Daniel Borsuk.

San Ramon Valley: Incumbent Ken Mintz, incumbent Rachel Hurd, incumbent Denise Jennison and Jerome Pandell.

Walnut Creek: Incumbent Barbara Pennington, Stacey Schweppe, Aimee Moss, Heidi Hernandez Gatty and Sherri McGoff.

West Contra Costa: Incumbent Madeline Kronenberg, incumbent Elaine Merriweather, Elizabeth (Liz) Block, Chester Stevens, Raquel Donoso, Otheree Christian, Mister Phillips and Peter Nicholas Chau. Not yet qualified: Charlene W. Harlan-Ogbeide, Valerie Cuevas and Giorgio Cosentino.

Which candidates do you support?

Posted on Friday, August 8th, 2014
Under: Contra Costa Community College District, Contra Costa County, Contra Costa County Board of Education, Education, Election, John Swett district, Lafayette school district, Liberty district, Martinez school district, Moraga, Mt. Diablo school district, Oakley district, Orinda, Pittsburg school district, San Ramon Valley school district, Walnut Creek School District, West Contra Costa school district | 14 Comments »

Unrest at Hercules Middle High School raises questions about the responsiveness of West Contra Costa school district leadership

Hercules Police School Resource Officers patrol Hercules Middle HIgh School

Hercules Police School Resource Officers patrol Hercules Middle HIgh School

In response to a story published Saturday about unrest at Hercules Middle High School, I was copied on the following e-mail from West Contra Costa district resident Georgio Cosentino to Ken Whittemore, the district’s assistant superintendent for Human Resources. I am posting the e-mail with Cosentino’s permission to allow West Contra Costa school district students, parents, educators and community members the opportunity to comment on the issue of teacher exit interviews and whistle-blowing, as well as the larger issues addressed in the story.

“Hi Ken,

Recently, I asked you about the status of teacher exit interviews, whether or not they were being performed and what was being done with the information. You said that they are conducted, that you, as Director of Human Resources, have the results. I think this information needs to be made public to the taxpayer on a quarterly or yearly basis. I read the CC Times article today about the situation regarding Hercules Middle High School and it mentions a teacher resigning because of being mistreated by kids (and staff?). We need to know with what frequency this sort of thing is occurring. If possible, I will seek to have such interviews also given to a parent oversight committee.

I also think a review of the teacher whistle blower procedure/policy is also in order. The current whistleblower policy directs the teacher to report complaints to the WCCUSD district office. This is very risky for the teacher as the WCCUSD is the employer of the teacher. This same policy does mention the County and State Department of Ed as options, too. These entities are more appropriate, that the option of district office should be eliminated. As a state employee, I am told to report my complaints and concerns to the Bureau of State Audits, not to my employer.

Please consider developing a mechanism that will provide us with the exit interview data, Ken. I also ask that you have all exit interview documentation in order for audit via the Public Records Request mechanism. Although such interviews are confidential, names and other personal information can be redacted. The voice of the teacher must be heard by all of us. I will share this suggestion at the next board meeting in observation of teacher appreciation month.

Thanks for giving my suggestions any consideration you can, Ken. Take care.

Giorgio Cosentino”

Do you believe the West Contra Costa school district is adequately addressing issues raised at Hercules Middle High School?

Posted on Monday, May 5th, 2014
Under: Education, Hercules, West Contra Costa school district | 11 Comments »

Congrats to 46 East Bay California Distinguished Elementary Schools!

California Distinguished School Certificate received by Hanna Ranch Elementary in 2012

California Distinguished School Certificate received by Hanna Ranch Elementary in 2012

Congratulations to the nearly 50 elementary campuses in the East Bay that have been named 2014 California Distinguished Schools!

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson announced this week that 22 Alameda County schools and two dozen Contra Costa County schools are among 424 elementary campuses statewide designated as distinguished, based on innovative strategies for narrowing the achievement gap.

“I applaud these strong, thriving schools that are making such impressive strides in preparing their students for continued success,” Torlakson said in a prepared statement. “This award is well-deserved by these school communities for their enduring dedication to high standards, hard work, and unwavering support.”
Here is a list of East Bay 2014 California Distinguished Schools by county and district.


Alameda Unified: Edison Elementary

Dublin Unified: Harold William Kolb Elementary (also award for Exemplary Physical Activity and Nutrition Program)

Fremont Unified: Ardenwood, Fred E. Weibel, James Leitch, John Gomes, Joshua Chadbourne, Mission San Jose, Mission Valley and Niles elementary schools

New Haven Unified: Pioneer Elementary

Newark Unified: James L. Bunker and John F. Kennedy elementary schools

Oakland Unified: Achieve Academy, Montclair Elementary and Think College Now

Pleasanton Unified: Donlon, Henry P. Mohr, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, Vintage Hills and Walnut Grove elementary schools

Sunol Glen Unified: Sunol Glen Elementary


Lafayette Elementary: Lafayette Elementary

Mt. Diablo Unified: Mt. Diablo, Sequoia, Silverwood, Strandwood, Valle Verde and Walnut Acres elementary schools

Orinda Union: Del Rey, Glorietta, Sleepy Hollow and Wagner Ranch elementary schools

San Ramon Valley Unified: Bollinger Canyon, Coyote Creek, Golden View, Greenbrook, Hidden Hills, John Baldwin, Live Oak, Neil A. Armstrong, Rancho Romero, Sycamore Valley, Tassajara Hills and Vista Grande elementary schools

Walnut Creek School District: Walnut Heights Elementary

The “signature practices” that helped earn these schools their recognition will be posted online later this year. Signature practices of past campuses named as California Distinguished Schools are at

Each school is visited by a team of local educators to see how the signature practice have been implemented. In Contra Costa County, a team of 19 educators from the Contra Costa County Office of Education, along with 18 school district administrators and four retired district administrators visited the sites, according to a news release.

Greg Santiago, principal of Hanna Ranch Elementary in Hercules, was one of the district administrators on the site visits. Hanna Ranch was one of two West Contra Costa district elementary sites named as California Distinguished Schools in 2012.

Its signature practices were analyzing test data to provide extra support to low-performing students and trying to close the achievement gap between high-achieving Asian and Filipino students and lower-achieving African-American and Latino students by using culturally relevant teaching methods.

One such teaching methods is “call and response,” which allows students to chant responses to teachers’ prompts instead of raising their hands to be acknowledged. In reading the signature practices, it is clear that the principal keeps the staff, students and parents focused on them.

The school’s description of signature practices states: “The principal’s message about academics is simple, ‘You may not get it the first time, but you never give up!” Santiago heads up a school equity team, which walks through classrooms with a checklist that includes these questions: “Are students engaged? Are they participating? Is there bell-to-bell instruction?”

I met Santiago last month during a ride-along with Hercules School Resource Officer Greg Sanchez, who told me when we arrived: “This principal has got it down.”

What are the signature practices at your school?

Posted on Friday, May 2nd, 2014
Under: Alameda County, Contra Costa County, Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 2 Comments »

School districts seek parent input for spending plans

MDUSD administrator leads parent discussion about engagement.

MDUSD administrator leads parent discussion about engagement.

Now that the state Board of Education has adopted emergency regulations and a template to help guide school districts in creating plans for spending their money, parents throughout the state should be hearing about community meetings asking for their opinions.

The Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa districts started holding meetings in January to explain the state’s requirements for the plans, which must focus on eight priorities.

Nellie Meyer, Superintendent of the Mt. Diablo school district, told parents during a Tuesday meeting at Ygnacio Valley High that the priorities fall into three basic categories: conditions of learning, student outcomes and engagement.

Conditions of learning include: proper teacher assignments and student access to instructional materials; implementation of the state’s new Common Core standards; and student access to a variety of courses.

Student outcomes are: pupil achievement and other measures of student success, such as reclassification of English learners as fluent.

Engagement includes: parental involvement, student engagement, and school climate indicators such as suspension and expulsion rates.

Based on these priorities, districts must decide how to divide their money in ways that will best serve their students. The money includes base grants that can be spent on districtwide needs, along with supplemental grants intended to help narrow the achievement gap for students who are English learners, low-income or foster youth.

Districts with more than 55 percent of students in these categories receive concentration grants for their additional disadvantaged students.

Mt. Diablo does not qualify for a concentration grant because its percentage of disadvantaged students is not high enough, Meyer said. However, she said some schools have a much higher percentage of disadvantaged students.

“In my humble opinion, the formula is flawed,” she said. “It should be by school.”

Parents at the meeting broke into three groups and offered suggestions for improvement in each of the three basic categories, such as ensuring high-quality staff, providing parents with more information about students’ progress and inviting families to fun activities on campus such as potlucks.

Meyer gave a similar presentation about the spending plan Wednesday to the school board. But some public speakers said the presentation included too much hard-to-understand education lingo, while leaving out information about how much money the district is receiving in base and supplemental grants.

Resident Willie Mims said the district needs to ensure that supplemental funding will help the students for whom it is intended.

The Mt. Diablo district will hold more meetings before finalizing its plan in June. Community meetings are at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Ygnacio Valley High in Concord, at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 20 at Diablo View Middle School in Clayton, at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 25 at Northgate High in Walnut Creek, at 6:30 p.m. March 18 at Concord High, and at 6:30 p.m. April 8 at Mt. Diablo High.

The West Contra Costa district held four community meetings in January and plans to establish a special committee comprised of parent representatives that will vote on its plan. The district has posted notes from its meetings online, including suggestions for programs or services that could help disadvantaged students.

Suggestions from El Cerrito High meeting participants included: better promotion of district resources, hiring certificated teachers for after-school programs, hiring writer coaches, reintroducing music and art, lowering class sizes at all grade levels, creating newcomer programs at schools, offering full-day kindergarten and early intervention preschool programs, eliminating classes with split grade levels, providing more alternatives to suspensions, offering writing support to English learners and additional reading and writing programs for all students, year-round schools, and more counselors.

How do you think districts should spend money earmarked for disadvantaged students?

Posted on Friday, January 31st, 2014
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 84 Comments »

Local school districts look forward to more money in 2014-15

School officials around the state will be spending the next several days reading through Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 2014-15 budget to see how it will directly affect them. For those that have a high percentage of low-income students and English learners, the new funding formula that gives them a greater share of the money is good news.

The West Contra Costa school district based in Richmond, along with the Oakland school district in Alameda County, are both looking forward to receiving additional funding expected to help them narrow the achievement gap.

Charles Ramsey, president of the West Contra Costa school board, said the money for low-income students and English language learners will make a big difference.

“There’s going to be a huge proportion of resources dedicated to assisting them,” he said. “It’s going to be a quantum change in funding for our district. We’re going to see a doubling of funding for those students over time.”

In the next couple of years, Ramsey said funding is expected to increase to $10,600 or $10,700 per student, with an additional $104 million total expected by 2021, after the funding formula is fully implemented.

The West Contra Costa school board has already decided to spend some of its new money on school resource officers, reducing class size in Transitional Kindergarten through third grade and creating “full service community schools” that include health centers. Ramsey said trustees are also considering allocating $1 million to $2 million more to athletics and setting aside additional funding for music and other programs that have been cut in the past.

“We want to be able to provide kids opportunities so they can learn,” he said. “We need to give more of our resources to the kids for the classroom. I give the governor a lot of credit to keep education at the forefront, because California has lagged.”

In addition, Ramsey said he would like to devote more funding to professional development to help teachers implement the new Common Core standards, along with the technology needed for testing. He was also pleased that the district has recently settled a contract agreement with teachers that included salary increases.

“We need to do more to really attract people to the industry and recruit and retain qualified teachers,” he said.

And Ramsey said the district is not shying away from its required accountability. The state Board of Education is fine-tuning guidelines that districts will be required to follow in developing plans for their spending.

“They want to see the kind of improvement we can have,” Ramsey said. “But, they’re not going to hold your feet to the fire right away. They’re going to give you a few years to show that it’s going to be successful.”

During the next month, the district is inviting community members to attend one of six meetings to get more information about state funding and discuss how it can be used to implement goals outlined in a recently-adopted strategic plan.

These meetings are: from 6:30-8 p.m. Jan. 15 at El Cerrito High; Jan. 16 at Ford Elementary; Jan. 21 at Pinole Middle School, Jan. 28 at DeJean Middle School, Jan. 30 at De Anza High, and Feb. 6 at Hercules Middle-High School.

Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland school district, said Thursday that he hadn’t had a chance yet to look at the governor’s budget in detail, but he pointed out that Oakland has been a strong supporter of the funding shift that gives more money to districts with disadvantaged students.

“Nothing’s perfect, particularly when you have to satisfy different constituencies in a diverse state,” he said. “This is a huge step forward for equity and for public education. This is the first time in many years, if ever, that funding has actually been aligned with student needs and that the value of equity has been placed front and center, with redistributed funds.”

Flint predicted that this approach would end up benefiting the state as a whole because struggling students will get the resources and help they need to succeed in college and the workforce.

“We’re very pleased with the direction the governor has taken,” he said. “We think this budget is going to produce great results for our kids and for kids around the state.”

Are you optimistic about the governor’s proposed 2014-15 budget?

Posted on Friday, January 10th, 2014
Under: California Board of Education, Education, Oakland school district, West Contra Costa school district | 30 Comments »

De Anza High teacher’s words of wisdom resonate after death

Retired De Anza HS teacher Karen Mason in Washington DC for President Obama's inauguration with former student Anka Lee.

Retired De Anza HS teacher Karen Mason in Washington DC for President Obama’s inauguration with former student Anka Lee.

During the past two months, I have been working on a Hometown Hero story about Karen Mason, a retired English teacher who worked at De Anza High in Richmond for 35 years and touched the lives of hundreds of students, their families and the surrounding El Sobrante community. Mason died Dec. 31, after battling cancer.

Although I only met Mason twice, I was touched by her selfless concern for others. In November, I interviewed Mason in her El Sobrante home. I saw her again Dec. 2 at a West Contra Costa school board meeting, where she spoke out against bullying.

On both occasions, I was impressed by Mason’s warmth and ability to connect with people. Her story will appear Tuesday in this newspaper, including quotes from many who knew her.

Below are excerpts from our interview that I couldn’t fit into the story, which reveal Mason’s caring spirit and determination to do what was right for her students and the world.

“You get to ‘adopt’ all kinds of people in your life if you’re open to it. My husband and I shared a mutual feeling that there were kids who needed safe places to come. One of the greatest gifts you can give is to listen.”

“I don’t go on Facebook. I want personal communication. I’ve never texted. I think if you want to talk, come on by.”

“The gift of communication — the gift of humanity — is exchanged when you really can look somebody in the eye and say something truthful.”

“The saddest story that my husband and I have is 12 years ago, our son was killed in an auto accident. There’s no milestone day when you lose a child. Grief is for the rest of your life. We feel blessed we had our son for 25 years. We’ve talked to other parents who have lost children to say, ‘You can get through it. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be great days of pain, and lots of it.’”

“I’ve led my life saying, ‘Be positive today. Get up and reach out to others and stay focused on what’s really, really the best thing for you and for everybody else.”

“I taught a classroom management course for student teachers. I would say, ‘If you love your subject matter more than your students, don’t teach. You’d better walk into that classroom and say, no matter what, I love those kids.’”

“I used to get up in the morning and say, ‘What are you going to do today that’s going to be good for kids?’ And if grown-ups got in the way, ‘Oh, well.’”

“I feel really privileged that people would let themselves be vulnerable. What humanity needs more than anything is to recognize that we’re pretty much born vulnerable and it’s okay to walk your path with others — reach out to others.”

“I would say, ‘I know this is hard. You can’t pass if you give up on yourself. I can invest in you, but if you don’t invest in yourself, then what’s going to happen?’”

“You never get more pressure than when you’re a teenager because everybody thinks they know what’s best for you — your teachers, your parents, your siblings — and they’re going to tell you. So, spend a little time figuring it out yourself. That’s hard work.”

“I like to think that maybe God’s gift was to be open. My mom cultivated plants. I said, ‘Maybe I have the ability to cultivate people.’”

“When the end of life comes, I hope my legacy is that people always felt and knew that they were loved and that they could trust me that I had integrity. I like to think that — having stayed in the same old duck pond — that some of my fellow ducks remember that.”

“I don’t have a bucket list. I just pretty much tried to do stuff that was important. I’m really at peace. I’m going to get to the other side of the clouds and the view will be just as fantastic.”

It’s easy to see why Mason was so dearly loved.

To those who knew Mason: What memories of her stand out most for you?

Posted on Friday, January 3rd, 2014
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | 2 Comments »

Story about foster youth in schools prompts fond memories from student’s former teacher

Foster youth Cookieey Ropati at Adams Middle School in Richmond.

Foster youth Cookieey Ropati at Adams Middle School in Richmond.

Earlier this week, I wrote a story about the state’s new emphasis on foster youth in schools that featured Cookieey Ropati, a foster child who graduated in June from Olympic Continuation High School in Concord and plans to attend Los Medanos Community College in the fall.

The day the story was published, I received a touching e-mail from Jason Lau, one of Ropati’s former teachers at Adams Middle School in Richmond, recalling her participation in his 7th-grade pre-algebra class, when she lived in the West Contra Costa school district. With the permission of Lau and Ropati, I am excerpting his e-mail:

“ … She always sat near the front (her choice) because she wanted to have as much interaction with her teachers as possible. She was an incredibly kind, extremely intelligent, and caring individual who literally brightened my day every time that I talked with her. She was also an amazing athlete. I remember her tenacity on the basketball court and how she embarrassed the boys when she proved that she could throw a football farther than them. What I remember most about her was her ability to stay positive and her relentless pursuit of life. She was never shy about talking to me about her situation and never allowed it to dictate the goals she set out for herself.”

Lau expressed happiness at learning that she will attend community college and asked me to let Ropati know that he is very proud of her.

“She was such a memorable student and was an inspirational story of perseverance even back in her middle school days,” he wrote.

When I told Ropati about Lau’s e-mail, she was surprised that he would take the time to send it, along with a photo that he found of her. Yet, Lau’s concern for Ropati’s welfare demonstrates what she said in the story about the importance of nurturing relationships for foster children: “It takes a village to raise a child. This is my village and I’m their child.”

When Ropati moved to the Mt. Diablo school district, she initially enrolled in Concord High, but transferred to Olympic after falling behind in credits. There, her support team included transition specialist and social worker Vivica Taylor, along with James Wogan, who oversees the district’s foster youth services.

“I met Vivica on my birthday three years ago and this woman brought me a cake and she didn’t even know me,” Ropati recalled. “So, I’m like, ‘Thank you, but who are you? I don’t understand.’”

As she began to open up to Taylor and the rest of the staff about the challenges she faced, Ropati said she realized they were providing stability in her life.

“I’m not sure what a regular parent does,” said Ropati, who has been in the foster care system since age 10. “But I’ve known them for so long that they’ve become basically my family.”

Taylor and Wogan said they provide “wraparound” services to foster youth to help meet all their needs, including food, housing, academic and mental health support. Although the number of foster students has decreased, they said the severity of the trauma and other issues with which these children are coping has intensified.

Many were abused or taken away from their parents for other reasons. Yet, the help they get from district staff — and from each other in student support groups — helps them gain confidence and thrive, Wogan said.

One girl in foster care recently spoke up after a teacher passed out papers and asked students to bring them to their moms, he said. The student asked the teacher to instead tell the class to bring the papers home to parents or guardians, since she doesn’t live with her mom.

“To me, it was really great to hear her say, ‘I’m in foster care,’” Wogan said. “We’ve seen kids go from being ashamed of being in foster care and not wanting their teachers to know, to overcoming that. But, not all kids are at that point.”

Ropati was one of several foster youth who lobbied the state to keep “categorical” funding for foster youth services intact and require school districts to track the academic progress of foster students and plan programs to help them.

Do you agree with the state’s new emphasis on helping foster youth in schools?

Posted on Friday, July 19th, 2013
Under: Education, Mt. Diablo school district, West Contra Costa school district | 42 Comments »

West Contra Costa Public Education Fund Scholarship finalists announced

Ed Fund Scholarship Finalists

Ed Fund Scholarship Finalists

The West Contra Costa Public Education Fund (Ed Fund) has announced its 2013 scholarship finalists, who will be awarded a total of more than $230,000. The finalists may be honored at a future WCCUSD Board meeting, according to a news release.

Here are the names of the finalists, along with background information on the scholarship program, from the release:

“Between 2005 and 2012, The Ed. Fund awarded $724,000 to 225 scholarship winners from WCCUSD. In 2013, thanks to generous support from donors, including the College Access Foundation of California, the Chevron Corporation, the Irvine Foundation, the Schroeder Family Fund and others, the Ed Fund will be awarding over $230,000 in scholarships.

The 89 finalists for our scholarships hail from 9 different public high schools located in West County. A list of high schools represented and the number of scholarship finalists from each school is as follows:

DeAnza High School: 9

El Cerrito High School: 10

Hercules High School: 5

Kennedy High School: 6

Leadership Public Schools-Richmond: 12

Middle College High School: 8

Pinole Valley High School: 8

Richmond High School: 30

Vista High School: 1

Finalists will be informed of their award amount by July 2013 following confirmation of their eligibility and a review of their financial need. Scholarships will range from $1,000 to $5,000 depending on the finalist’s individual need.

All Ed Fund scholars were chosen for their vision to succeed in college and dedication to community service and leadership. They are also involved in a wide range of extracurricular activities which have made them well-rounded individuals. The Ed Fund believes these students will return to our community to serve as leaders and role models in West Contra Costa County.

Ed Fund Scholarship Finalists

Jin-Won Kim
Keyannie Norford
Lawrence Luckett
Lilibeth Lopez
Rohitesh Mani
Sakeema Payne
Sonam Ram
Verntzoone Roger Pharn
Yesenia Aguilar

Ajah Fredzess
Dzidi Djugba
Jessica Segura-Hernandez
Kimberley Bocanegra
Liam Studdiford
Malik McElroy
Qiqi Tang
Sandra Torres
Yingying Li
Zihao Kuang

Darian Wong
Gurinder Rai
Marina Queiroz
Marjorie Gatchalian
Valeria Avila

Lavontae Hill
Muang Saephan
Oscar Smith
Sonia Perez
Susan Vilaiphone
Yaneiri Hernandez Ochoa

Alma Martinez
Andre Ernest
Barbara Maldonado
Daniela Felix
Elias Ortega
Gabriela Cervantes
Julianna Ponce
Katherine Orellana
Laura Horta
Lizette Covarrubias
Maija Arriaga
Samuel Mendez

Alexandra Cardenas
Asma Ayyad
Beverley Saechin
Edgar Valiente
Luis Serrano
Melanie Chao
Puja Dahal
Zubia Ahmad

Blake Evans
Cristella Ho
Jachonet Hill
Jada Wyatt
Morvarid Mehdizadeh
Nora Vongsa
Tiffany Hurtado
William-Lea Newsome

Abel Gallardo
Angel Hernandez
Bety Escobar
Brenda Valadez
Chaidy Lam
Christian Rodriguez-Bojorquez
Danielle Miguel
Diana Diaz
Genesis Fabian
Ingrid Serrano
Jennifer Valtierra-Rojas
Jesica Cuervo
Jessica Castro-Chavez
Jessica Maciel
Jillian Ortiz Cruz
Kelly Saefong
Kerry Viengvilai
Kissarria Johnson

More information about the Ed. Fund is available by calling 510-233-1464 or by visiting

Posted on Monday, May 13th, 2013
Under: Education, West Contra Costa school district | No Comments »