Once-Model School District in California Gets Fiscal Reprieve

TEACHERS in the bankrupt Richmond (Calif.) Unified School District rushed to collect textbooks and mark final grades this week in anticipation of a premature end to the school year on Tuesday. But in an 11th-hour reprieve on Monday, a county superior court judge ordered the State of California to keep the district's 47 schools open until the scheduled end of classes on June 14.

"Now it's like reopening school again," says Derek Link, principal of Highland Elementary School in Richmond. "It's been quite a roller coaster ride for all of us." End-of-the-year classroom parties planned for Tuesday suddenly changed to celebrations of a bittersweet victory. "There's still a question mark in our minds about where the money [to keep the schools open] is coming from," Mr. Link says.

Almost two years ago, Richmond's "System for Choice" magnet schools program received national praise as a model education plan. Magnet schools, offering specialized curricula, were instituted throughout the district.

On April 19, however, the 31,000-student district, which is about 25 miles east of San Francisco, filed for bankruptcy and requested $29 million in state bailout funds in order to keep the schools operating through the school year.

Gov. Pete Wilson vowed to veto any legislation approving the money unless the teachers union gave up the right to collective bargaining. That condition was flatly rejected by the union.

The district has "become a political football," says Gabrielle Moore, president of the United Teachers of Richmond.

Governor Wilson was "out to break their union," says Joan-Marie Shelley, president of the Unified Educators of San Francisco. If he had succeeded, he would have "found a formula he would use up and down the state."

But in a lawsuit brought by a group of parents, Judge Ellen James ruled Monday that "the education of children is the function of the state." She charged Bill Honig, state superintendent of public instruction, and other state officials, with finding a way to keep the schools open. Mr. Honig directed his staff to come up with a "stripped-down, bare-bones way" to comply.

ON Tuesday, Honig and other officials agreed to a compromise bailout package of $19 million, which would allow the school system to meet its payroll and other basic expenses for the final six weeks.

Meanwhile, the governor's office is appealing the judge's ruling, but that action is not expected to affect the outcome of this case. The governor doesn't want this case to set a precedent requiring the state to rescue districts in financial straits, Ms. Moore says. "We've got a long-term problem of funding education. Every district in California is in trouble, but we're the worst-case scenario."

Many parents and school officials blame former Richmond superintendent Walter Marks for the district's fiscal fiasco. In December, the district bought out the remainder of Dr. Marks's contract, amid charges that he overspent district funds. In February he was hired as superintendent of schools in Kansas City, Mo.

Parents and students in the debt-ridden district are angry and confused. "Dr. Marks had big ideas - good ideas - but he didn't have the money," says Karen Cole, whose daughter attends a high school in the district. m just glad that she will be out of the system after next year."

Many parents are considering leaving the system for private schools or other options. Juan Jacinto, who has four children in the Richmond schools, says: m ready to take my kids out of school and just teach them at home."

Despite the reprieve, the Richmond school district faces drastic cutbacks. Teachers are already preparing for a reduction in course offerings.

"Now we're the choice district that's going down in flames," Moore says. "Choice costs money, but they don't tell you that."

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