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Troubled District Giving Parents A Tough Choice

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Richmond, Calif.

Theresa Macias is lucky today. Her car is working, and that means her three children can go to school.

She loads her sleepy crew into the back seat of her 1979 Eldorado and begins her daily, hourlong circuit to three schools scattered across their San Francisco Bay-area district. Sometimes, when the aging Cadillac refuses to start in the morning, her children stay home.

But, Ms. Macias says, she is relieved that her children are even in school at all.

The school district, West Contra Costa Unified, filed for bankruptcy in 1991 and may be the most financially troubled in the state. The crisis has left many of its schools filled to capacity, with no money to bus students to others.

So, the district has given Ms. Macias and more than 150 other parents a choice: shuttle their children to remote schools that have room, or teach them at home.

That is a choice many parents believe they should not have to make.

Two parents sued the district in state court last fall, claiming its displacement policy denies their children's right to a free education under the equal-protection provisions of the state constitution.

School-law experts believe the lawsuit is the first in the country to challenge reassignment practices as a violation of state law.

The outcome, experts say, could have far-reaching implications for other troubled districts in the state. Faced with decreases in state education funds over the past two decades, many other California districts have stopped offering transportation to students.

California now ranks 41st in the nation in state spending for education, according to the state education department. If state support continues to shrink, overcrowding and displacement problems will spread, said Michael Kirst, the co-director of Policy Analysis for California Education, a Stanford University-based think tank.

"West Contra Costa is an extreme case because of the bankruptcy, but there are other districts that are in similar situations," he said.

While the district's situation is unusually dire, Mr. Kirst said, "they aren't as far out as people think."

If, through the lawsuit, the courts require school systems to provide transportation, the repercussions for school funding in California would be enormous, he said, as many districts would not be able to comply with such a mandate.

"This case is a look at the future," Mr. Kirst warned. "Many districts are not far behind."

Treacherous Routes

Right now, however, it is families like Ms. Macias's that are forced to cope. Two of her three children barely made it into their neighborhood schools this year because the schools were nearly full when her family moved into the area in mid-September. Even these "neighborhood" schools are miles from home.

Ms. Macias's Eleven-year old daughter, Daniella, meanwhile, was bumped to an elementary school 15 miles away.

Even if she could afford it, Ms. Macias told a visitor one day recently, she would refuse to send her children through unsafe neighborhoods on public buses to school.

Irma D. Herrera, a San Francisco lawyer representing the parents in the West Contra Costa suit, argues that the district has an obligation to residents to make reasonable school placements.

Ms. Herrera, pointing to a map of the 110-square-mile district stretched across her kitchen table, said a long commute can be a serious hardship for poor parents.

"It's like assigning a student in a wheelchair to an inaccessible school," she said.

The other option--home schooling--is equally impractical, Ms. Herrera said, because many parents are poorly qualified for the assignment.

Geraldo Fraire, one of the parents involved in the lawsuit, agreed.

"I can't help my [14-year-old] son because he already has more education than I had," said Mr. Fraire, a roofer who emigrated from Mexico.

His wife, Esperanza, said that when the family moved into the district two years ago, school officials gave her a choice between putting her daughter on a waiting list for a school across town or teaching her at home.

"This doesn't make sense to me. We pay taxes, and I think that means we pay for schools," said Ms. Fraire, speaking through an interpreter in her living room one evening. "It's not my job to teach my kids. It's the teacher's."

Recommending home instruction to parents is a perversion of the school district's independent-study option, which is intended to be voluntary, Ms. Herrera said.

Victoria L. Kelly, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, reluctantly taught her two 7-year-old daughters in her small house for five months before space opened up in a school in Richmond.

Her car rarely worked, and she feared sending her daughters on a city bus alone. So, she quit her part-time clerical job and used school-issued science, mathematics, and reading books to tutor her 2nd graders.

But having three other children in the cramped house made it difficult for her daughters to concentrate, Ms. Kelly recalled.

"I was so stressed. My daughter would hang upside down from the chair when I was trying to teach her to read," she said. "I felt powerless."

Ms. Kelly joined the lawsuit to change that.

No Ticket To Ride

Any changes are likely to come slowly, however.

Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Robert McGrath recently denied a request for a preliminary injunction that would have stopped the district from reassigning students away from their neighborhood schools. Instead, both sides are preparing for trial.

Lawyers for the district say that while getting children to their assigned schools may be inconvenient for parents, there is no constitutional obligation to provide transportation for students.

"Sometimes parents don't enroll their children on time and there is one kid too many," said Marleen Sacks, a co-counsel for the district. The district is constrained by a local teachers' union contract that prohibits class sizes from exceeding 31 students, she said.

And the district's "extreme budgetary problems" have made other solutions to the overcrowding difficult, she said, contending that the crisis in the 31,000-student district stems from a "long history of overspending."

Superintendent Herbert M. Cole Jr. inherited an $80 million debt when he assumed his post three years ago. The troubles were so severe that the district, then called Richmond, changed its name to distance itself from its tattered reputation. (See Education Week, 05/08/91.)

The previous superintendent borrowed millions of dollars, increased teacher salaries, and bought more than $9 million in computer equipment that was never paid for, Mr. Cole said.

"They overspent their budget by a horrendous amount, which created serious problems," agreed Mr. Kirst.

Learning at Risk?

Under the district's bankruptcy agreement, every expenditure must be approved by a state-appointed trustee.

"People need to recognize that this is a bare-bones operation," Mr. Cole explained, sitting behind a desk piled high with budget reports and flow charts. The district has no money to hire more teachers or build more schools to accommodate the overflow, the superintendent said.

Unlike in many California districts, however, the overcrowding in West Contra Costa is not a result of an influx in immigrants. In fact, the district's population has decreased over the past few years.

Instead, classroom size ballooned because the district was forced to shut down several schools that needed repairs and were too costly to maintain.

Under Mr. Cole's stewardship, the district has also cut teachers' salaries, slashed school supplies, and gutted the athletics program. But it is still in the red.

Even if the district offered to pay for transportation for every needy child, the state trustee would veto the expense, Mr. Cole added. "The bottom line," he said, "is the [parents] can sue but there is no money."

Some parents who managed to enroll their children in a neighborhood school say the district's austerity program is taking its toll on learning. Combining two grades in a classroom has become a popular solution to deal with bulging class sizes. But some parents, like Penny Norman, say split classes jeopardize her children's education.

Ms. Norman said dividing a teacher's attention between two grades is "a gyp" for the students because instructors are unable to cover all the material.

"I have two children who are gifted and talented, and I feel cheated," she said, as her 6-year-old son, Zac, played chess on her living-room carpet. A University of California at Berkeley graduate who develops curricula for science teachers, Ms. Norman said the district's priorities are skewed.

Ms. Macias, driving an hour each morning to get her children to school, agrees.

"I had to quit my job to drive them because we couldn't afford the bus fare," she said. "The district is not being helpful. They're not really in a hurry to help kids."

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