In a significant victory for the West Contra Costa Unified School District and a major defeat for a group that tried to save Castro Elementary School in El Cerrito, the state Court of Appeal on Thursday upheld a lower court decision in favor of the closure of Castro and rebuilding Portola Middle School at the Castro site.
School board President Charles Ramsey said the decision means the rebuilding of Portola can now move into high gear. The district had been waiting for the court decision before beginning the demolition and construction work, he said.
"The project can go forward," he said Friday. He acknowledged that the district had already been moving forward with the plan, though in relatively small steps, such as tree removal.
The appeal court decision lifted a "cloud of uncertainty," he said, adding that he doesn't anticipate that the Castro school supporters will appeal to the state Supreme Court.
In a unanimous, 36-page opinion, a three-judge panel for the First District of the Court of Appeal rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that the school board had not complied with the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and had violated the state's open-meeting law (the Brown Act) by not properly listing the Castro closure decision on the board meeting agenda. The opinion is attached to this article.
The attorney for the Castro school supporters, Robert Brower, said Friday night he had not yet seen the court decision and could not comment.
One of the 23 individual plaintiffs in the suit, parent Linda Ruiz-Lozito, said she wasn't surprised by the decision and had been more or less resigned to losing the court battle.
"I think we all got discouraged when they closed the school," she said, referring to the closure of Castro at the end of the 2008-09 school year.
Asked if an appeal could be in the works, she said, "I don't think so," though she added that she hasn't had a chance to talk with the other plaintiffs about it. A chief reason for filing the suit, she said, had been "to protect the students."
The Castro students were reassigned to other district schools.
The legal dispute goes back several years to when the state architect's office declared that the Portola campus would be unsafe in a major earthquake. After studying what to do, the district deemed the buildings irreparable and agreed to relocate the school.
Portola students have been housed in temporary buildings on the lower, flat portion of the old Portola site for the past two years. The district is in the process of demolishing the old Portola buildings.
The district first settled on putting Portola at Fairmont Elementary School in El Cerrito, a decision that aroused substantial community opposition. Further study and community debate followed, and the board voted 3-2 on Dec. 10, 2008 to rebuild it on the Castro site.
A group of neighbors, parents and other supporters of Castro filed suit on Jan. 12, 2009, saying the board failed to meet CEQA requirements, including an adequate review of alternatives, and to follow correct procedures.
On Nov. 29, 2010, Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Barbara Zuniga dismissed the bulk of the plaintiffs' suit but left open a 35-day window for further challenge on the district's Master Plan for the project. On March 15, 2011, the court said the Master Plan had not been challenged during the allowable time period and upheld it too, thus rebuffing the plaintiffs, who next appealed to the state Court of Appeal.
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