LEADING THE CHARGE FOR EDUCATION
By Lou Fancher
A parent-led coalition devoted to creating a new school district in Walnut Creek is working hard to move to the front lines. The Northgate Community Advocacy for our Public Schools (Northgate CAPS) nonprofit group marks a two-year effort to form a new district consisting of approximately 4,600 students, 425 employees and five schools: Northgate High School, Foothill Middle School, and Walnut Acres, Valle Verde and Bancroft Elementary Schools. Aiming for the 2017 or 2018 election cycle, the earliest Northgate Unified School District (NUSD) could be formed is the 2018–2019 school year.
Walnut Creek residents with children in the Mt. Diablo Unified School District (MDUSD) made a similar effort in 2008 to unify under a new district by proposing that school district boundaries be redrawn to match the city’s boundaries. The effort would have moved all Walnut Creek students, and some students from MDUSD and Acalanes Union High School District, into the new district.
The County Board of Education denied the proposal.
Northgate CAPS Co-Founder Linda Loza says Northgate CAPS has similar goals but a different approach. To provide students with the best, equitable education and a district with more local control, CAPS applies the five school’s current attendance areas as geographic boundaries and only involves students in the MDUSD. While it already has the support of over 600 residents in the proposed district’s attendance area, CAPS needs more community backing to move forward. In order to put the proposal on an election ballot, 25 percent of registered voters in Walnut Creek must sign a petition within 180 days of when the petition is filed. Current plans are to file by September 10th of this year.
Seeking 5,500 signatures, Loza says the petition, along with a report proving the new district meets state criteria for evaluating district reorganization then goes to the County Committee. If approved by the County, the State Board of Education must sign off on the district reorganization. The final step places the proposal in front of voters as a local ballot measure, along with measures to elect a governing school board, and a possible parcel tax.
“The absolute main issue is that Mt. Diablo School district is too big,” says Loza, whose two children graduated from Northgate High School in 2010 and 2013. “It can’t serve all the students and school sites. They do a one size fits all, whether it’s text books or curriculum.” Currently, the MDUSD includes over 50 school campuses with roughly 3,500 employees and approximately 30,000 students. Along with concerns about the district’s size, Loza says a decline in student achievement scores since the 1990s, a layered bureaucracy that precludes adequate, timely communication with parents, and MUDSD’s failure to pass a parcel tax measure make the timing right to establish NUSD. CAPS Co-Founder Alisa MacCormac has one child at Northgate who will graduate in 2018. Although her family won’t benefit from the new district, she says, “I am working to create NUSD because I believe a community run school district is better able to meet the needs of its students and teachers.”
MDUSD Superintendent Dr. Nellie Meyer declined to answer specific questions, instead issuing a statement that reads, in part: "We realize parents have a choice of where to send their children to school, and we believe the Mt. Diablo Unified School District is an excellent, competitive choice with a long and valued history in the Contra Costa County community. We are deeply committed to providing a world-class education to students throughout the District centered on equit, access, and excellence, regardless of zip code or demographics.”
A primary criteria the Northgate CAPS’ proposal must meet is addressing the new district’s effect on the MDUSD and its potential to negatively impact funding and special services for students who might be hurt by the reorganization. According to the CAPS website, “Per-student funding for MDUSD is expected to increase under California’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which was designed to address the specific needs of each district’s unique student population.” Loza believes the percentage of special needs, low income and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) students will likely rise at MDUSD if NUSD is formed. “It could allow them to reach a higher special needs funding threshold, resulting in better, not worse, services for those students.”
In addition to community support, Loza says the new district has endorsements from current and former Walnut Creek city council members. “With a city council resolution there is a way to go to the next step without the petition signatures, but the council wants the petition to ensure the community wants it.” In the end, parents, city council members, educators, community activists and school administrators want the same thing: schools with state-of-the-art technology, education pathways for students leading to college and careers, engaged and talented teachers, and bright futures.