George Austin: Charter Schools Association Seeks a Foothold in WCCUSD

Radio Free Richmond

blogimage.jpgWest Contra Costa Unified’s school board elections have always been a small-town affair.  The fight for the Board’s five seats has historically been among community leaders: parents, retired teachers, and school volunteers.  This November, however, national influences are quietly entering the local arena – seeking to upend longtime community leaders and, ultimately, create opportunities for charter networks to disrupt the district’s system of neighborhood schools.

This November, ten candidates are vying for three of the Board’s five seats.  Campaign fundraising ranges from $0 for campus security officer Otheree Christian’s campaign to over $90,000 for private school parent Liz Block.  Both of the top fundraisers, Liz Block and Valerie Cuevas, have received most of their funding from the California Charter Schools Association’s political action committee and wealthy charter school advocates Steve and Susan Chamberlin.

Cuevas and Block are both relative newcomers to the District’s school community.  Cuevas recently relocated to the Bay Area from Los Angeles, and though Block is a longtime educator and El Cerrito resident, she elected to send her children to private schools and has never worked in WCCUSD – choosing, instead, to work in other school districts. 

In addition to providing major financial support for Cuevas and Block, the charter school PAC and the Chamberlin family have poured over $100,000 into discrediting incumbent Madeline Kronenberg. So far, three campaign mailers have urged voters to unseat the two-term trustee, simultaneously blaming her for the decrepit conditions of schools’ former campuses and the expensive efforts to build their replacements.

Kronenberg states that she “won’t apologize” for the extensive bond campaigns that funded the comprehensive rebuild of WCCUSD’s schools.  “I put my kids through these schools,” said Kronenberg, a retired teacher who is now also the parent of two teachers – one at El Cerrito High School, and the other at a charter school in New Orleans.  “I knew the condition of those buildings.  All of our kids deserved better – we couldn’t rebuild and leave anyone out.”

Long-time parent volunteers like Kronenberg have typically sat at the helm of West County’s schools.  Current board members include Todd Groves, who volunteered in the District’s schools for over twenty years before running for the Board, and Randy Enos, a retired WCCUSD teacher and who is also the son and father of West County teachers, as well as an alumnus of Richmond’s Kennedy High School. 

This unprecedented investment in a typically small game begs one question: why?  One need only visit the website of the race’s biggest funder, the California Charter Schools Association, to understand.  As the Association seeks to expand, it uses a measurement called the “Charter Opportunity Index” (COI) to determine which school communities are most vulnerable.

If there ever were a vulnerable target, West Contra Costa is it. The more a school struggles academically, and the higher its population of low-income students, minority students, and English Language Learners, the higher its COI score.  WCCUSD is a predominantly low-income district that serves mostly students of color.  Mismanagement in the 1980s left the District in fiscal tatters, which lead to the state of California taking over the district. Local leaders worked tirelessly for twenty years to pull the District out of state stewardship.  The district repaid the money it owed to the state ahead of schedule, is now back under local control, and is solvent.   

The District’s struggles have produced infighting among its diverse assemblage of small communities.  This lack of unity and trust means that negative messages, like the hit pieces against Kronenberg, are often received with open ears.

Many worry that this influx of well-funded negativity may drown out news of the District’s current hard-fought successes. “They [charter school advocates] want to make it seem like only the wealthy kids succeed here, but my daughters were on free lunch,” said board member Groves.  Groves’s daughters, WCCUSD alumni, currently attend Vassar College and New York University. “They’re trying to make these kids fit into a narrative that isn’t true.”

Earlier this year, former West County eyesore De Anza High School made headlines for its dramatic gains in enrollment, school culture, and student achievement.  70% of the school’s students are on free and reduced lunch – and for the second year in a row, De Anza has made the second-highest jump in School Climate Index in the state.

“If I could trust that the other front-runners would be good stewards of our current successes, I wouldn’t be working so hard,” said Kronenberg, of her struggle to keep fighting back against the California Charter School Association’s many attack ads.  Kronenberg worries that a large influx of charter schools would divert engaged parents away from neighborhood schools.  “I’m concerned about the kids who would be left behind.”

Whatever the future holds for West County’s schools, one thing is clear:  WCCUSD elections are no longer a contest of purely local consequence.

By: George Austin, Retired Teacher

Showing 4 reactions

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  • Giorgio Cosentino
    commented 2014-10-29 06:27:35 -0700
    Everyone wanted change, yet UTR didn’t endorse any “change” candidates. There were choices. The incumbents have done little to build trust. They extended the contract of a Superintendent who brought shame to the district with the OCR findings and then the tragedy at Richmond High School. They supported a Superintendent who spoke against allowing each city having its own school board representative, something that would have helped build trust. So now we are going to elect some change candidates who possibly have never stepped foot inside a WCCUSD SSC or PTA meeting. Note to Val Cuevas: if it is true you have only been in West County for 2 years, please thoroughly research this particular district. There is more to the WCCUSD problem than just dollars. Thanks.
  • Giorgio Cosentino
    commented 2014-10-29 04:14:32 -0700
    I was all for voting for Liz Block. I even donated to her campaign. Then I saw the quote in the CC Times by Rick Radin in which Liz Block stated during the El Cerrito forum that she is partially or mostly opposed to charter schools. This is in disagreement with easy to find evidence that she does indeed support charters schools. At an El Cerrito City Council meeting, she delivered a petition of signatures for a charter school. She didn’t just sign it. She delivered it as if she were one of the leaders of the effort. She then drove to Martinez to the CC BOE to speak in support of a charter school. I have asked her to clarify and she says she will do what parents want. Fine, but she should not have said she opposes charter schools. That is not true. So now I do not know who Liz Block is. I do not want a board member who is prone to double-speak.
  • Linda Ruiz
    commented 2014-10-27 22:25:51 -0700

    Nystrom Elementary has been in Program Improvement since 1998
    (WCCUSD calls this"Focus Schools")
    2013 % proficient/advanced in English/Language Arts = 20%,
    2013 % proficient/advanced in Math = 25%

    From Cruz vs State of California, Case # 14727139, Class Action Complaint Filed May 29, 2014:
    “Nystrom Elementary School in Richmond. … During the 2012-27 2013 school year, Nystrom’s enrollment was 451. Of these students, 71 percent were Latino, 26 percent were black, and 2 percent were Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander. Approximately 61 percent of the students were English language learners, and 100 percent of the students were socioeconomically disadvantaged. Nystrom is a chronically low-performing school, having been on Program Improvement status since 1998-1999, which means it has consistently failed to meet student achievement goals. …
    If Nystrom was a charter school, it would have had it’s charter pulled many years ago for low academic performance.
  • Linda Ruiz
    commented 2014-10-27 17:49:33 -0700
    If you want less charter schools then you need NEW leadership on the school board that will prioritize education over construction AND school facilities are costing way over the average.
    Over the years Madeline Kronenberg has taken over $200,000 in contributions from construction interests – Many of these companies are profiting off of the $1.63 billion dollar bond program and have no-bid contracts. Typically a school board candidate raises just a few thousand for a campaign. So, this might be the first time in WCCUSD history that someone might have more backing than Ramsey-Kronenberg. So far Madeline has $63K for this election (mainly from construction interests), Peter Chau has $39,850 of which 98% of his contributions come from construction related interests – AND he is on the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee! In 2010 Charles Ramsey raised $101,650, Madeline Kronenberg around $70,000 (I didn’t add up late contributions) – $15,000 was from the bond manager: the Seville Group “SGI
    In 2006 Madeline received around $60,000 in contributions- again mainly from construction interests and I believe she was on the Citizens’ Bond Oversight Committee during this – $20,000 was from the Seville Group “SGI”. In 2006 Charles Ramsey received $132,350.
    WCCUSD school board members have been taking large contributions from construction interests for many years. Because of Gov Code 4526 Professional Services such as construction management, Architects, Engineers – do not have to be lowest bid.
    So, how can someone compete for the school board with the history of big construction bucks? You want less charter schools? Get better leadership so education is prioritized — then parents won’t want to send their kids to a charter. Nystrom Elementary has been in Program Improvement since 1998 – that is unacceptable! (100% socioeconomically disadvantaged):…/uploads/2014/05/Complaint.pdf
    This piece says Liz Block is a newcomer – she has live in this district for over 30 years, she was a school principal for 32 years and was a special education administrator. I met both Val Cuevas and Liz Block before the Charter School Association wanted to back them. I believe they are good people that care about students. I’m concerned the CCSA backing is also hurting their campaigns.
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