The Emeryville Center of Community Life (ECCL) was born under controversy. It endured plenty along the way and crossed the finish line with some as well (the site is still in fact under construction and expected to be completed in October). Much of that was tabled for a few hours as dignitaries from around the county including U.S. Representative Barbara Lee and former Assembly member Nancy Skinner turned out for the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony that was held last Thursday September 1st.
The opening of the groundbreaking, state of the art K-12 school looks to turn the page on a tumultuous two decades for the EUSD. An era that saw the district forfeit control to the state after a series of fiscal blunders and have had to scratch and claw its way back to solvency. There was a sense of guarded optimism in the room that this project might be the catalyst to boost performance of our schools and become a more viable option for parents within the city to have their kids educated.
Like nearly every municipal project, it was delayed, over budget and concessions were made to resources along the way. Because of Emeryville’s small population and small pool of school age kids, Emeryville sought to efficiently consolidate as many services as possible into one space. The $96 million complex (funded by a 2010 bond measure and $25M in redevelopment funds) houses a K-12 school, a dental & health clinic, afterschool programs and a community center.
“Our agencies wanted to build a community school that can provide wrap-around supports for an enhanced educational experience while creating a community hub to strengthen the bonds among all our residents,” noted EUSD School Board President John Affeldt through a press release. “Communities across the nation will be looking to Emeryville to emulate our unique partnership.”
Councilmember Atkin, who helped usher the project along during her tenure on Council, seemed particularly satisfied with the completion of the project. “Today is a big celebration” Atkin noted at the ceremony. “Today’s celebration represents the commitment of the entire community to come together to support its citizens. Today is about lifting up the entire community for generations to come.” Atkin will be stepping aside from Emeryville politics after 17 years.
State Control, Bankruptcy and A School Board Recall
Sixteen years ago, our schools hit rock bottom under the leadership of J.L. Handy. Handy was previously fired from the Compton school district in 1992 leaving the district five million the red and leading to a state takeover. Despite this background, Hardy was hired to run EUSD based on his educational experience. Handy’s lack of fiscal prudence as well as some apparent moral lapses soon became apparent. This September 2000 SFGate article details the state of dysfunction of our schools at the time that led to Handy’s dismissal amid allegations of misappropriations of funds. After a subsequent Alameda County Grand Jury investigation, Handy pleaded no contest to felony charges. Handy was replaced with Interim Superintendent Dr. Laura Alvarenga. After Handy’s dismissal, the community turned their ire to the school board, whose job it was to oversee his spending.
Christine Mingo, an Emeryville parent at the time, helped organize a recall effort called “Save Our Schools” and was supported by Councilmeber Nora Davis and the Teachers Association. “I take the accountability of public officials very seriously” noted Davis in the below vintage East Bay Express from 2000 written by Elizabeth Hollander. The lengthy story detailed the fight to recall the School Board that came to a head at an October 16th, 2000 school board meeting. Current School board candidate and former Councilmember Ken Bukowski and active Councilmember Ruth Atkin were both on council at the time, but withheld support of the recall effort.
Amid the recall effort, School Board members Gisele Wolf and David Lawrence subsequently resigned while remaining incumbents Barbara Krzywicki, Donald Dorsey and Gladys Vance fought the effort pleading that they were not culpable and misled by budgets with faulty figures. Administered through a special ballot, the recall was successful. In 2001 the EUSD declared bankruptcy and a state takeover was implemented. The EUSD board slowly regained credibility under the leadership of Joshua Simon and Forrest Gee but didn’t emerge from state control until 2011. Emeryville churned through Superintendents along the way including contentious figures Tony Smith and Debbra Lindo.
Emeryville Center of Community Life Idea Born
Emeryville has always has a difficult time funding, staffing and filling three schools (Anna Yates, Ralph Hawley Middle and Emery Secondary School). Desperate times demand desperate measures and the city crafted a plan to preserve the school system by consolidating them into one facility and packaging it with community services. The idea was so unique that it was actually illegal and required a change to the California Education code to allow a City-School district partnership at this level. The code prevented the mixing of uses at school sites purportedly to prevent exposing kids to possibly nefarious things.
The ECCL plan was said to be the heavily vetted result of hundreds of hours of engagement and “visioning sessions” from community stakeholders and civic leaders. In 2013, the National League of Cities penned a piece referring to the plan as “a Bold Vision“.
Dissent with Project
Not everyone is happy or satisfied with the project, though. Outgoing Councilmember Jac Asher was noticeably not present at the ceremony and reportedly tried in vain to have her name removed from the project plaque. A mother of two, Asher outlined her criticisms of the project in a 22-page letter to the planning commission in 2013. Most of the dissent centers around the closure of Anna Yates, which was part of the plan from the beginning, but has in recent years become a beacon of light within the district. “We forced a lot of kids into a small space” noted School Board member Christian Patz in this SFGate piece on the opening of the Center. “That makes me wonder if we’ve made the right decision”. The cost of operating and maintaining another facility amid current budgetary constraints would be a challenge for the small district with its current enrollment. The Anna Yates facility is said to be in talks to be leased to the Yu Ming charter school [UPDATE: Discussions with Yu Ming apparently fell through in June].
The RULE faction of Asher, Patz (who is running for city council and his wife Barbara Inch running for School Board) and Emeryville Tattler opinion blog writer Brian Donahue have in tandem vehemently opposed the project along the way and have since all reportedly opted to transfer their kids out of the district [CORRECTION: Patz reportedly never in fact enrolled his child within the EUSD therefore did not technically “transfer”]. The tension and even antagonism among boardmembers is apparent in the below emergency meeting that debated delaying the opening of the school amid ongoing construction. Some of this “bad blood” stems from Patz filing a Brown Act violation against his fellow boardmembers last year.
The paradox in Emeryville is that it has been a draw for out of district transfers of kids mostly from Oakland because of our district’s intimacy, but local parents have been hesitant to enroll their kids in the EUSD. Test scores have been historically low within EUSD and in a city with a high rate of college educated professionals, not many are willing to sacrifice their kids education by sending them to an underperforming school. Many local parents have reportedly opted for private school if they can afford it or move once their kids become of school age.
In 2014, the district hired Superintendent Dr. John Rubio to bring the project to the finish line and tackle the bigger problems of enrollment and performance. With the construction nearing completion, he now has the resources to focus on these goals. “The 66-year Joint Occupancy Agreement between our respective public agencies represents our ability to look into the future and make plans for the long run” noted Rubio. “The holistic approach of services and the new facilities are a strong statement about what local partnerships can accomplish with a worthwhile and simple purpose. Together, the City and the School District have created a unique vision of a campus that will not only serve students and families but also Emeryville residents of all ages.”
Now the real work begins. The work to get the performance and enrollment of our schools to a steady level and stop the exodus of local families with school age children. The EUSD’s enrollment last school year was fewer than 700 students, but inching upwards. Dr. Rubio provided some encouraging data to support this noting 520 kindergarten through eighth grade students and 200 high school students are already enrolled at the Center. With a new facility and adequate resources, the District has no more excuses. It now desperately needs to boost performance at all levels and attract members of our community if it is to fulfill its promise of being the “center” that it aspires to be.