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Published in Print: March 24, 2004, as Calif. District Slashes School Sports for Fall

Calif. District Slashes School Sports for Fall

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The school board of the West Contra Costa, Calif., district has voted to eliminate all sports programs and close school libraries in the fall, prompting expressions of outrage from parents and students and an outpouring of financial support from local businesses.

After voters narrowly rejected a "parcel tax" sought by the district, board members said they had no choice but to slash $16.5 million from the 35,000- student district’s $181 million budget. The tax on residential and commercial buildings would have raised about $7.5 million a year for five years at an annual cost of about $80 per property.

"It was painful," said Charles Ramsey, the board president. "Board members were very sad at the list of cuts that had to be made."

But just four days after the March 8 board vote, the board voted to put another parcel-tax measure before voters in June that would raise $8 million and restore some of the affected programs.

Among other reductions, the district plans to lay off 201 of its approximately 4,000 employees, including school counselors, librarians, psychologists, and elementary music teachers.

"We have made the cuts," Mr. Ramsey said. "This is the community’s opportunity to return the services. If they weren’t aware of the tax measure before, they will be now."

Student athletes, coaches, and parents around the district—which serves a diverse mix of low-income and middle-class families across the bay from San Francisco—have criticized the severity of the cuts. Students at several schools walked out of class to protest the cuts. At Hercules Middle/High School, students held a mock funeral to mourn the possible loss of sports.

"Without sports, some kids wouldn’t bother going to class," said 15-year-old Robin Bethea, a freshman who plays football and baseball for De Anza High School in Richmond, Calif. "There would be a lot of kids on the street."

Like other athletes, he said he would consider transferring to a private school if sports are gone next fall.

His mother, Lisa Jones, worries that without the structure and discipline of athletics, her son and 16-year-old daughter, a cheerleader, would lose their focus on schoolwork.

"We use the extracurriculars as motivation to do well in school," Ms. Jones said. "It teaches them responsibility."

Troubled History

According to the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees school sports in the state, the West Contra Costa district would be the first in the state to eliminate all athletic programs because of financial problems.

The local business community has given students and families some reasons for hope, however.

The Safeway Foundation donated $50,000 to the district last week and challenged other San Francisco Bay-area corporations to match the donation. The Wells Fargo Bank of the Greater Bay Area chipped in $50,000, and Mechanics Bank gave $25,000. The Oakland Athletics baseball team has promised that half the ticket revenues from three games will go to the district.

Roy Rogers, the athletic director at Richmond High School, said the community support was reason to be cautiously optimistic. "The way things are shaping up now," he said, "we should be able to right this situation."

The West Contra Costa Unified School District has been plagued by a history of financial woes.

In 1991, what was then called the Richmond Unified district nearly went bankrupt before the state took it over and provided a $29 million bailout loan. The district, in fact, pays $1.8 million a year on the loan, which will not be fully paid off until 2018.

"It’s a huge burden," said Gloria Johnston, the district’s superintendent.

Add in skyrocketing health-insurance expenses, which cost the district $9.5 million this year, and not much fat remains to be cut. The district has an unusually generous health-care plan, negotiated with teachers 30 years ago, that provides full medical coverage for employees and their spouses for life.

Making West Contra Costa’s challenge even greater, Superintendent Johnston said, is the estimated loss of some 800 students next fall as families continue to leave expensive urban areas. The enrollment loss is expected to cost the district almost $5 million in state funds.

Bob Blattner, the vice president of School Services of California, a Sacramento- based consulting and advocacy group that has done lobbying work for the district, said the West Contra Costa schools are unfairly hamstrung by an interest rate that is much higher than what other districts pay.

While West Contra Costa pays interest of 5.6 percent on its state loan, the Oakland district pays 1.7 percent and the West Fresno schools pay 1.9 percent, he said. Legislation passed last summer and signed into law by then-Gov. Gray Davis gives the state department of finance the authority to adjust the district’s loan rate.

But the law did not go into effect until Jan. 1, and under the administration of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the department has not acted to make changes.

"There can be no real legitimate reason to burden the schoolchildren in West Contra Costa with a loan rate three times higher than those currently being paid by West Fresno and Oakland," Mr. Blattner said. "The state should not be in the business of profiting from arbitrage in schools."

On March 16, two state senators and two members of the Assembly, the legislature’s lower house, wrote a letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger requesting a refinancing of the loan. The lawmakers said such a deal would save the district between $400,000 and $600,000 a year.

Vol. 23, Issue 28, Page 3

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