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Judge Orders State To Keep Troubled School District Open

April 30, 1991

RICHMOND, Calif. (AP) _ A judge Monday ordered the state to keep open Richmond’s schools, which won national recognition with a bold program of education reform but went broke and faced closure Tuesday.

″Deprivation of education in the (district) is constitutionally unequal education,″ Judge Ellen S. James of Contra Costa County Superior Court in Martinez said in her ruling.

More than 200 anxious parents in the hearing room burst out cheering. They had filed a lawsuit to force the state to step in.

″This is really great. Now all we’re going to do is make sure that the school system follows through,″ said Mashariki Sanyika, one of the parents.

It appeared the state would have to pay to keep the schools open, but James didn’t specify how.

Michael Hersher, an attorney for Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig, said: ″How exactly the state is going to comply with this I don’t know.″ Honig oversees public education in grades 1-12.

A meeting was scheduled Tuesday to resolve the funding problem, said Fred Stewart, the district’s state-appointed trustee.

Robert Bezemek, an attorney for the Richmond district, said schools will abide by the order even if no cash from the state is immediately forthcoming.

A spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson denounced the court ruling as a bad precedent and said his office would decide Tuesday whether to appeal.

″To simply go ahead and file suit and compel the state to pick up the tab for gross mismanagement does not solve the problem,″ said James Lee. ″It’s unfortunate, and it’s something we’ll have to deal with.″

The expected last six weeks of school had turned into a scramble after school officials announced the last day of school would be Tuesday instead of June 14. Although proms and graduations are scheduled to go on, students bemoaned the loss of such traditions as picking up yearbooks and collecting farewell autographs.

″Suddenly we have two days,″ said Quoc Duong, student body president.

A pending lawsuit by the California Teachers’ Association says the state provided Richmond with less money per student than similar districts and is seeking an injunction ordering an equalization.

Separately, advocates for the disabled sought a restraining order in U.S. District Court in Sacramento to keep the entire 31,000-student district open on behalf of 3,000 disabled students. No hearing was immediately scheduled.

Richmond’s troubles, and $24 million deficit, are widely blamed on former Superintendent Walter Marks’ ambitious programs, including the ″system for choice″ program of magnet schools in the working class city of 87,000 residents on San Francisco Bay.

The system was designed to integrate the 47-school district, about 70 percent minority, by giving some schools specialties in, say, classical instruction or math, thereby attracting students from the district’s affluent hill towns surrounding Richmond.

In November 1989, Richmond was selected as a site of a U.S. Department of Education regional strategic meeting on choice in education.

It all pleased Ms. Coronado, who had moved out of San Francisco, eight miles to the southwest, just so her children could enjoy the benefits of a suburban education.

″I thought, boy, we sure did the right thing moving out. I couldn’t speak highly enough about the schools,″ she said.

But right after the conference, rumbles of trouble began, along with memos to cut back spending, said Richmond High Principal Al Acuna.

School officials now admit they overspent and counted on grants that never came. Then cutbacks in state education allotments brought them to the brink of financial ruin.

Much of the blame goes to Marks’ programs, administrators said.

″He built that reputation and generated that kind of national publicity for the district by spending money that didn’t exist. A lot of people were kind of taken for a ride on that,″ said Suzy Lange, spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig.

Marks, now superintendent of Kansas City, Mo., schools, has directed his office to answer queries about Richmond with a blanket ″no comment.″

Richmond’s downfall was quick.

In June 1990, a state-appointed trustee was brought in to oversee finances, a condition of a loan from the state. Last November, Marks was bought out by the school board for $93,990, and by April, schools had to seek protection under Chapter 9 of federal bankruptcy law.

A $29 million state loan, following last summer’s $9.5 million advance, stalled when the governor threatened to veto any aid unless a state administrator is granted broad financial powers, including the right to suspend union contracts. Unions have refused to grant that power.

A handwritten sign stuck in the lawn in front of an elementary school last week seemed to sum up much of everyone’s frustration.

″For Sale. Open House. $29,000,000,″ it read.

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