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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hundreds of Students, Parents and Community Members March to Save Emerson Junior High

At Central Park yesterday, hundreds of students, parents, and community members marched throughout the park urging the Davis Joint Unified School District not to close Emerson Junior High School.

Carrying a wide variety of signs and bullhorns, the group first rallied at the park, then marched around the park twice, and finally marched from the park across the street to in front of the district offices.

At that point, most impressively, new Superintendent James Hammond addressed the crowd. He told them this was a most difficult decision that they would have to make and that they will consider it very carefully. While, it was not exactly what the large crowd wanted to hear, there was an appreciation that the Superintendent was not hiding in his offices.

Some of the concerns raised by community members were also captured in a letter from the school PTA to the school district.

There were expressed concerns about the risk of commuting by students to other portions of town. The increased crowding of junior highs back to what it was before Harper (although I believe part of the plan is to move 9th graders to high school, so the problem of overcrowding might occur on the high school campus). There are fears that once the school closes, it might now re-open again even if budgeting would allow it.

One of the big concerns is that there has been no taskforce or planning for the closure of the school.

Proponents of Emerson site Education Code 17387:

“It is the intent of the Legislature to have the community involved before decisions are made about school closure or the use of surplus space, thus avoiding community conflict and assuring building use that is compatible with the community’s needs and desires.”

Just as the education code requires a 7/11 commission to sell off surplus property, so would it seem to require some sort of task force before closing a school.

A number of DaVinci High students both joined in the protest and had their own brief demonstration asking for their teachers and programs to be saved.


A few points of commentary that I want to raise at this point.

I listened throughout to people talking about the fact that the seeds for this district's fiscal mismanagement were laid in the past and the public did not pay sufficient attention. I agree with that. However, I do not think the public really understands the depths of those problems that should be laid firmly at the feet of past school boards, past administrations, and past policies. At the same time, I also do not think the public truly understands the work that the most recent past school board did to fix many of these problems.

Unfortunately, despite those efforts as outlined on this blog in the series on the former CBO, the school district has not been able to escape this problem.

Discussions I have had with people close to state government emphasize that the expectation that we will have the economic problem alleviated by the Democratic Legislature may be less than expected. It is unlikely that the legislature would impose 10% cuts, but everyone believes that painful cuts will occur.

That puts the onus on local school district. The Davis Schools Foundation was working hard to get additional pledges for donations. The raising of these one-time monies could be vital to helping to lessen the pain of such cuts.

The school board as we suggested last weekend, should consider an emergency ballot measure for temporary funding relief. I discussed this possibility one of the board members on Saturday and it is something that they are considering. The problem is that the public seems so angry right now that they may not be amenable to yet another tax increase.

I spoke to Freddie Oakley and she told me that such a ballot measure if it were mail-in only, would only cost around $50,000.

Some have floated the idea of recall, but frankly that is the last thing this district needs. First, it would be punishing the students in the form of more payments by the school district. It would also distract the district from other means in which to deal with the revenue problem. Finally, for the most part it would punish those not responsible for the bulk of the budget problem. We can all point to decisions by the board we disagree with, but on the whole, the current board has done a decent job given the magnitude of the problem.

Those who wish to punish the kids for the mistakes that some adults have made, might want to reconsider that. If we all join together, we can probably save the schools and programs that we all like.

The final point I would like to make is that while this may be frustrating for all involved--and I remain a strong supporter of keeping Emerson open as well as the Valley Charter School--I was impressed with Superintendent James Hammond. I remember how former Superintendent David Murphy reacted to criticism and protests. There is little doubt in my mind that he would have hid in his offices, as so many government officials would have done, waiting for the protests to end.

But James Hammond had the courage to address the hostile but generally polite crowd and while he could not assuage their concerns, I think he gained their respect in the process. It would have been nice if Board Member Richard Harris had done likewise but at least he and Board President Sheila Allen attended the rally and can report back to their colleagues tomorrow night the community's concerns.

We all have a stake in the future of Davis schools and we all have to pull together to prevent things like cutbacks in teachers, school programs, and closures of schools.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting