On a recent afternoon, Charles Ramsey, the outgoing West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) School Board President was browsing through his email.
Midway through our conversation, he paused and declared, “I made a difference.” Detangling and then removing the iconic white earphones Ramsey is rarely seen without, he handed over his phone to show an email on its screen and asked us to read it aloud.
The email, he said, came from a now 23-year-old El Cerrito High School graduate who attended Stanford. The message read, “What bittersweet news, you’ve done so much for West Contra Costa and your service and dedication has directly impacted my life and lives of hundreds of other students in this community. I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without your support.”
Ramsey added, “Just wanted to let you know, those were the kind of life changing experiences that took place during my term, my 21 years.”
Tonight, Dec. 3 marks Ramsey’s final meeting as a School Board member. Ramsey spent over two decades on the WCCUSD Board, a tenure in which he gained a reputation as a leader, helping put together a billion dollar district bond plan that provided much needed cash for school infrastructure improvements. But he was also seen sometimes as a divisive presence, given to displays of heated, confrontational rhetoric.
This election cycle he ran an unsuccessful campaign for Richmond City Council, a campaign likely hindered by questions about the bond program that is now under federal investigation. Ramsey placed sixth out of nine candidates in the election despite benefitting from nearly $300,000 in campaign funds from the Chevron-funded PACs Moving Forward and Richmond Working Families for Jobs 2014. Although two seats on the School Board were open this November as well, Ramsey decided not to run for a sixth term.
Having lost the city council seat and without a school board seat to return to, Ramsey is unsure of what he’ll do next. He does know one thing, however: he won’t be returning to education.
“I’m done, I’ve done a generation, I’ve worked for 25 years, it’s time for me to step back and let other people take over.”
Ramsey comes from a family of civil servants. His father, Judge Henry Ramsey, served as a Berkeley city council member in the 1970s, and was appointed as an Alameda County Superior Court judge by Governor Brown in the 1980s. Ramsey’s mother, Evelyn, was also committed to the Richmond community and ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat in 1995. “She did better than I did,” said Ramsey referring to his mother’s city council race.
Ramsey attended UC Hastings Law School and established his practice in Alameda County. He served a short stint on the Richmond Planning Commission, but in 1992, a Richmond firefighter noted Ramsey’s dedication to youth and suggested he run for the school board. Ramsey ran and was elected in 1993, marking the beginning of his 21-year run.
Looking back, Ramsey sees “rebuilding almost every single school,” getting the district out of debt, getting local control back, and updating technology in classrooms as his greatest accomplishments. He leaves a district in better financial shape than when he came in, and with an energized charter school movement.
Regarding Ramsey’s school construction initiatives, Madeline Kronenberg, who has served on the board with Ramsey since 2006, said, “he had a vision for the community to replace dilapidated buildings and really to put our children and staff into buildings that would serve them on into the future. He is the driving force behind the physical rebuilding of the high school.”
Ramsey believes that the WCCUSD community has lost faith in the school board and its effectiveness. “The reality is that people believe that the district cannot fulfill their expectations,” he said.
When asked whether he was hopeful for the new school board, Ramsey said, “They’ll find their place, but at the end of the day, they’re going to be a board member. Everyone comes in wanting to be a change agent, but you can’t change things overnight.”
Ramsey also leaves a school district in which there is increasing friction over the presence of charter schools versus traditional schools. During the Nov. 12 school board meeting, more than 200 charter supporters demanded a larger, permanent facility. Although he says he does not believe charter schools will be effective, Ramsey understands the need for parents and community members to have alternatives.
“You can’t stop the tsunami, you let it happen, and then ten years from now we’ll see what happens,” he said.
At the Nov. meeting, the Board denied a motion to pay a $350,000 contract for Ramsey’s legal fees for the Securities and Exchange Commission’s ongoing investigation into the school district’s bond program.
During the Board’s discussion on whether or not to cover Ramsey’s legal fees, audience members objected. “Think about the money you are taking away from our children. Our children are not a dollar sign,” said one district parent.
The bond program has resulted in $1.6 billion since 1998 to cover school construction and rebuilding costs. Ramsey and Kronenberg have both been subpoenaed as a result of the SEC investigation. Both Ramsey and Kronenberg have denied any wrongdoing.
Although Ramsey respects the board’s decision not to pay for his legal fees, he finds it “puzzling.” He added, “At the end of the day, life goes on.”
As for the future, Ramsey, who has two daughters, plans to stay in Richmond. “Richmond’s a great place but it’s not for everyone, my girlfriend hates it and she wants out,” he said.
“I’m from here so I don’t want to be in San Francisco, I don’t want to be in LA, I don’t want to be in San Jose, I don’t want to be in San Diego, I just want to be around where I grew up and that’s Richmond,” said Ramsey.
“I’m just a local guy with a lot of local love for the local people.”