A DISTRICT DIVIDED
May 17, 2017 04:10PM
By Lou Fancher
On April 18, the Walnut Creek City Council endorsed a movement led by Northgate Community Advocacy for Our Public Schools (Northgate CAPS) to create a new school district separate from the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. Because the council exerts no authority over the initiative that will be determined by state and county education officials, the decision surprised many, infuriated others, pleased supporters, and set off a firestorm on social media.
By issuing a proclamation, council members supported Northgate CAP’S condition that if the petition to hold an election for secession is approved by state and county education boards, only residents in the Northgate boundary areas—not the larger MDUSD community—will be allowed to vote on it. The city council made no comment on the nine criteria county and state officials will apply to determine the merits of creating a new school district—NUSD—consisting of approximately 4,600 students from Northgate High School, Foothill Middle School, and Walnut Acres, Valle Verde and Bancroft elementary schools.
Councilwoman Cindy Silva expressed confidence that if the county and state approve the new district it will be because they’ve decided it will not harm MDUSD, while Northgate High School history teacher Meg Honey warned that teachers may flee the district. Residents and others at the packed city council meeting expressed diverse views, exposing the deep divisions this complicated issue has created in the community. Reached April 22 by email, Mayor Rich Carlston wrote, “I was approached by Northgate CAPS about the City of Walnut Creek adopting a resolution relative to their efforts to create a new school district. Because community support existed for such a resolution and there was council interest, the resolution was placed on the agenda.”
Asked if the council plans future actions he said, “Our resolution is procedural. If the state determines voters will decide the question, our unanimous resolution states the vote should be limited to voters within the proposed new district.” When asked if people opposed to Northgate CAPS’s creation might find the proclamation a “stamp of approval,” Carlston said only “it seemed important to consider.”
In comments to Walnut Creek Magazine, Councilman Kevin Wilk said the 5,000 plus signatures by Walnut Creek voters on the petition were a major factor in his decision to vote in favor of exploration of a new school district by the county and state. “I looked at the request from Northgate CAPS in two ways: Do we have jurisdiction? And if so, should we weigh in? Because the California Education Code states a local government committee should hold a hearing on proposals involving unification or reorganization of a school district that meant to me the city can weigh in.”
Wilk said he felt a responsibility to support the desires of a large segment of the Walnut Creek community. “We had 5,400 Walnut Creek residents who signed the petition. When you have that large of a number, then yes, the council resolution was necessary. The county board of education will ultimately approve, deny or amend it. We were asked only if the petitioners should be heard by the county. End of story.” In the weeks following, Wilk expressed concern about the rancor on social media. “People are using terms that are unfortunate—like racist, elitist, white flight, and divisive language accusing others of not caring about students. That is just not true of either side.”
Northgate CAP’S President Linda Loza said the council’s endorsement was a big step in the group’s 40-year effort to create a district with local leadership. “It let the people know the City of Walnut Creek supports their efforts to have the vote within the boundaries of the proposed Northgate Unified School District. The endorsement was sought so we could say to the County Board of Education the City of Walnut Creek supports our efforts. It adds clout to our movement and levels the playing field. We are a grassroots organization going up against MDUSD with union organizers, lawyers, and a $350 million budget.” Loza said the city council has passed six resolutions relating to education since 2006. “There’s a history of involvement in education. I’d consider it disappointing if they didn’t exercise their purview.”
Meg Honey, representing the group opposed to secession known as Northgate Un-Capped said, “The four-hour city council meeting was pretty devastating on multiple levels demonstrating a surprising “lack of understanding” by council members on a complicated issue and an endorsement that could result in voter suppression.” Residents in the northwest area of Walnut Creek (Larkey) who are part of the MDUSD, would not be allowed to vote. In addition, the proposed boundary lines for the new district carve-out the neighborhood surrounding Oak Grove Middle and Ygnacio Valley High, yet does not include these schools in NUSD. “I am surprised the council would approve a resolution that included a recommendation to disenfranchise Walnut Creek’s citizens on the issue should it ever come to a vote,” said Honey.
MDUSD Superintendent Meyer is on record stating the secession would negatively impact the MDUSD and the entire community must be allowed to participate in a vote for or against NUSD. “We are disappointed the Walnut Creek City Council essentially voted to suppress the voice of our local citizens. We do not believe the criterion are met to form a new school district and clear examples were presented detailing the devastating impacts such a separation would pose to students, families, and teachers. We are dismayed the council approved a resolution that would restrict the voice of the people to specific zip codes when the impacts could be felt throughout the district.” Meyer said special education services, dual immersion programs, technology grants, school counselor and librarian staffing, teacher coaching and enrichment, middle school athletic funding and other educational services would be impacted.
More recently, an article in Newsweek titled “Whites only: School segregation is back, from Birmingham to San Francisco” looks at school district secession movements happening across the country in middle-class suburbs. In it, retired Alabama federal Judge U.W. Clemon questions whether the motivation behind these secession efforts is truly about local control of schools or something else. Northgate CAPS, which is proposing a new mostly-white district, says race has nothing to do with its push for secession from the Mt. Diablo Unified School District. But others disagree and point to the fact that diverse student populations at Oak Grove Middle and Ygnacio Valley High are excluded from the proposed NUSD. According to Wilk, “This proposal will live or die by its own merits. My endorsement was only to support that people be heard. I trust the county in making a wise decision.”