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Profile in courage: West Contra Costa exits state control: ‘Never give up’ 

It was a joyous scene June 1 in Richmond, across San Pablo Bay from tony Marin County.

An $8 million-plus check can do that to a community.

The money was going out of the blue-collar city of 104,000 to the state treasury in Sacramento, but people were still ecstatic. It would have been fitting if, after West Contra Costa Unified School District board President Charles Ramsey presented the check to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, Torlakson had handed Ramsey a ceremonial key to his own school district; but Ramsey was happy just to finally have his governance team in the driver’s seat for the first time in over 20 years.

West Contra Costa Unified—originally Richmond Unified, before a symbolic name change in 1993—came under state control in April 1990. It was as mournful a time then as June’s occasion was celebratory. Loan instruments (certificates of participation) had helped paper over a $4.6 million district deficit a few years earlier, but by 1990 state-appointed trustee Fred Stewart had to arrange a $9.5 million loan from the state—and then another for $19 million more in 1991. The district had declared bankruptcy and would have closed its schools but for a legal challenge that went to the state’s highest court.

“The State itself bears the ultimate authority and responsibility to ensure that its district-based system of common schools provides basic equality of educational opportunity,” the court ruled in Butt v. State of California.

“We were the salvation, because the state Supreme Court reaffirmed that every student is entitled to an education, and closing down a school is not an option,” Ramsey says now.

But state control—for which Richmond essentially established the template—was the polar opposite of salvation, to hear Ramsey tell it. He would know; he’s been on the school board since 1993, nearly the entire span of the district’s governance from Sacramento.

“You have this shadow overlooking you,” Ramsey says now. “We barely survived, but we’re pleased that we’re now through it.”

Ramsey is philosophical about the events under former Superintendent Walter Marks that led to the takeover, saying only that “the district in the late ’80s made decisions that later turned out to put it in financial hardship.” Generous salary and compensation packages, ambitious programs and large investments in technology all took their toll.

“We just couldn’t go forward with the provisions we had,” agrees Bruce Harter, West Contra Costa’s superintendent since 2006. Pay cuts, the elimination—at midyear—of many enrichment courses and athletic programs, and closed libraries are all part of the story—as are nearly $2 million annual loan payments, at 6 percent interest.

It all led to a 75-mile protest march on Sacramento in 2004, with some participants undertaking a hunger strike. Civil rights activist Dolores Huerta got involved, reportedly delivering a personal plea to then-California first lady Maria Shriver, successfully urging that the state loan’s interest rate be cut to a much more manageable 2 percent. That saved the district $5 million, but ultimately it took the state’s approval to use proceeds from the sale of surplus property to make the final $8.1 million payment—four years ahead of schedule.

In all, eight districts have received emergency state loans through the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, and four have exited—now five, counting Richmond.

Ramsay’s advice? Avoid it at any cost.

“It is not pretty,” he says, but the lesson he hopes others will take away is one of perseverance.

“The district, despite obstacles, overcame the bankruptcy, continued to educate kids, and we prevailed,” Ramsey says. “At the end of the day we never gave up. Never give up.”

—Brian Taylor

CSBA has help for districts in fiscal peril

Archived webcast, resource guide address qualified or negative interim status reports
With California’s schools suffering from years of state budget shortfalls—and harder times ahead if Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiative fails this fall—CSBA responded with a special webcast June 12: “Qualified and Negative Certification Status: Understanding These Certifications and How to Avoid Them.” The one-hour webcast—the first in a planned series—is posted online for viewing anytime, along with a related resource guide, “Qualified & Negative Budget Certifications,” offering information, tips and communications tools for governance teams. Find them both at

And don’t forget—CSBA’s Annual Education Conference and Trade Show, coming to San Francisco Nov. 29-Dec. 1, will also offer multiple opportunities to learn more and share experiences about funding and finance, advocacy and engagement, and related topics. Find out more at