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Appeal Court Upholds Portola Move to Castro School Site

In a long-awaited decision, the state of Court of Appeal on Thursday denied an appeal by supporters of the closed Castro Elementary School in El Cerrito who sought to block relocation of Portola Middle School to the Castro site.

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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Joan Bonnar August 04, 2012 at 11:17 PM
I am so glad the kids will have a new school. What is going to happen to the property of the existing middle school. Thanks
Kathy A. August 04, 2012 at 11:55 PM
here's an article from april: http://elcerrito.patch.com/articles/old-portola-school-site-to-be-soccer-fields-long-slope the current portola site will have some soccer fields.
Michael O'Connor August 05, 2012 at 04:28 AM
The choice of the Castro site for a middle school was a poor decision at the time due to the former use of AC Transit busses to transport most of the students from outside the city. Now that the school is much smaller and fewer busses will attempt to travel on the narrow streets surrounding the site, things will not be so dire for the neighbors of the new Portola Middle School. Build it for the future El Cerrito / Kensington School District.
Charles Burress (Editor) August 05, 2012 at 04:29 AM
We've added the Court of Appeal ruling to the article. (Look for the PDF file under the photos.) Sorry for the delay, which was caused by scanning problems.
Charles Burress (Editor) August 05, 2012 at 04:48 AM
Yes, it's posted now. Apologies for the delay (scanner problems).
Charles Burress (Editor) August 05, 2012 at 04:56 AM
The latest plan I've seen from the district calls for the main, sloping part of the property be graded after the old Portola buildings are demolished and left unused for the time being. The temporary classroom buildings on the flat part of the site will be used by Fairmont Elementary School students after the Portola students move out. (Fairmont will be rebuilt). The city has expressed interest in using the flat portion, after the temporary classroom buildings are removed, for soccer fields, as a reader noted in another comment. There's also discussion about the flat part of the site being a possible location for a new El Cerrito Library: http://patch.com/A-wCtG.
Toni Mayer August 05, 2012 at 06:23 AM
I'd much rather see a new library on that lower pad than soccer fields. There are soccer fields across the street in Cerrito Vista Park.
Kim August 05, 2012 at 07:17 AM
I do not blame residents for having concerns. It seems to me it is in the same area as Cameron Preschool which already has buses coming and going. The streets in that area will be so congested.
Karl A. August 05, 2012 at 07:32 AM
WCCUSD, has neglected the Castro Elementary school site for decades and under supported the students attending there in the decade before they shut it down - and you just now noticed?
Karl A. August 05, 2012 at 07:38 AM
Does this mean that cops will no longer be required at Portola, now that the "new" Portola will be the latest WCCUSD Board trophy project in El Cerrito?
Karl A. August 05, 2012 at 07:52 AM
At the December 2006 meeting at Harding School, that would seal the fate of Castro Elementary School over the next three years and the neighborhood that surrounds the school, the pro Portola at Castro factions claimed that Fairmont school was unsuitable for a middle school because it was next to the BART tracks and therefore the noise was excessive and that San Pablo Avenue would be a truancy magnet and so the battle against the Castro Park area residents to locate the redundant Portola Middle School there was on. The following is for me is more than ironic: "Castro School Will Open for Fall Term The under-construction new Castro Elementary School is expected to be open for the fall term next year, in 1947, according to schools Superintendent Walter T. Helms. The school, whose construction cost is estimated as $110,000, will have 11 classrooms and hold more than 400 students. It is expected to relieve overcrowding at Fairmont School."
Local Parent August 05, 2012 at 08:27 PM
Good point. I also WHOLE-HEARTEDLY support the future El Cerrito/Kensington School District. I've heard a lot of grumbling about this. How does that process begin? Don't tell me all the reasons why this can't or won't happen, I'm tired of the status quo!
Anon August 05, 2012 at 09:21 PM
I'd like to see a gym built in El Cerrito instead of a soccer field to be honest. Maybe somewhere with indoor basketball courts.
Toni Mayer August 06, 2012 at 03:31 AM
At the New Library Committee meeting Thursday night, one possible tenant mentioned for the old Safeway building is a fitness center, so perhaps it will contain basketball courts.
Robert Studdiford August 06, 2012 at 04:15 PM
I'm very glad to see the new Portola middle school project at the Castro site finally move forward. By the time students move in, 42 individuals will have cost the local tax payer 10.6 million dollars and 9 years of waiting for safe housing for the students and staff of Portola. How did I get to 10.6 million? Temporary campus 4.5 mil, 1.5 for the ECHS portables not used for a year, 6 years of portable rentals for the temporary campus at Portola 1.6 mil, ruffly 1 mil in legal fees and three more years of rent on the temporary campus for Portola at a cost of 1.2 mil. The new facility should have been completed 2 years ago but now will take 3 more years to complete. This has been the greatest waste of tax payer dollars to date within the Bond program and it lays at the feet of those 42 individuals. The deep divide sewn between the community of which I live in will take time to heal. It is my hope that when the community finally see's children coming and going to the new school, they will relax and see the school for what it is, part of the fabric that holds our community together. After all, the kids going there are ours to love and look after. It was time for the waste of precious time and tax dollars to come to an end.
janet enos August 06, 2012 at 04:45 PM
Preposterous: an El Cerrito/Kensington school district. Really? Do you have any concept how much money would be neeeded? Think of how Albany and John Swett have struggled just to exist. Kensingtonians know historically that the fiscal responsibilities of branching off are not a wise investment. Old hat
Susan August 06, 2012 at 10:51 PM
Janet, yes it is a preposterous idea. Do the math, folks. El Cerrito and Kensington do not have the funds to break away. Besides, you have capital improvements such as a brand new high school that WCCUSD paid for. Would the "new" tiny school district be able to "buy" the school from WCCUSD who paid for it? dream on.
Susan August 06, 2012 at 10:54 PM
It REALLY is time to move on from this issue. I wouldn't like it either if I lived in the neighborhood - but you know, no one's making you live near formerly-Castro School. Unfortunately neighborhoods change and we can't control those things. However - you can control where YOU live. You CAN move, you know!
C Note August 07, 2012 at 06:34 PM
How is the school much smaller? Will the attendance boundaries be smaller or the enrollment as compared to the old Portola? Is there an article that speaks to this? thanks
Christina Slamon August 07, 2012 at 06:46 PM
To C Note. To answer your question about the smaller attendance. Two reasons, the attendance was capped at 600 students due to the protest from the Castro Neighbors and the old Portola used to include 6th graders. Now all of the elementary schools go through 6th grade. We used to have some elementaries that only went through grade 5. Those students went to Portola for grade 6.
Karl A. August 08, 2012 at 07:47 AM
Considering that the WCCUSD had no intention of involving the Castro Park area residents until their hand was forced at the December, 2006 meeting at Harding; a series of meetings held only after pro-Portola @ Castro Board members were reelected during very important State and National mid-term election, I would have to say the that since Portola largely serves a non-EC student body, they got what they, the Board deserved. I have been paying taxes to the WCCUSD for twenty years, currently to the tune of over $1k per year. In my view, they are a school district with a slumlord ghetto living mentality. Though not party to the lawsuit, I am pleased that some in the Castro Park neighborhood were able to exercise their legal rights on behalf of the rest of us. This was, is, and remains a WCCUSD trophy project. Are the children at the two former WCCUSD Elementary school sites now used by K-8 Prospect Sierra unsafe and receive educations of a lower quality than the WCCUSD can provide at the new and old Portola and Fairmont Elementary? I think and know not. Certainly, I have never seen of heard evidence. To the contrary, only silence when ever the WCCUSD's Portola is compared to any K-8 school, be it public or private,
Karl A. August 08, 2012 at 07:59 AM
Christina, when in the last twenty years did Portola have an enrollment above 400 students? How many were actual EC residents? Please list by year. When the school was originally built what was its full capacity?
Christina Slamon August 08, 2012 at 01:50 PM
I live about 6 blocks from Portola school, it is walking distance from my house as is Castro; but guess what, I live in Richmond Annex (1 block on the other side of San Pablo Ave) and all of my lovely El Cerrito neighbors like yourself keep trying to say that is not my neighborhood school as well. Needless to say I disagree. Richmond residents also pay taxes and deserve to use their neighborhood schools! As far as your other questions about enrollment, I have no idea but when my daughter went there I think about 650 students were there.
Susan August 08, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Karl - why does it matter to you how many kids in Portola were "actual EC residents"? It's totally irrelevant. And frankly, it is narrow minded and just plain ignorant..Sorry but these schools do NOT belong to El Cerrito just because they are located in El Cerrito! Nor does Kensington Elementary belong to Kensington nor El Cerrito High belong to El Cerrito. Our district belongs to everyone from Hercules to Kensington. We all pay taxes on these schools and the WCCUSD neighborhood jurisdictions do not fall in line with city boundaries. do you not know that?
Christina Slamon August 08, 2012 at 07:09 PM
thank you Sandra:)
Tamsen August 08, 2012 at 07:23 PM
Agree. We are ONE district. Each middle and high school does have feeder schools, however. And, FYI, Stege is a feeder school for Portola. So anyone who lives in the Stege area (which I think includes Richmond Annex) is assigned Portola and ECHS. Regardless, any resident in WCCUSD can apply to attend any school, and if there is room, are welcome to attend. I think we need to stick together here, and not divide the district into us and them, theirs and ours. There is tremendous wealth and potential in all of our youth. That potential does not diminish simply because of which side of San Pablo people live! We have got to do right by these kids, by this generation.
Toni Mayer August 08, 2012 at 07:24 PM
Point well taken, Sandra. Just because we live El Cerrito doesn't make Portola--or any of the other schools in town--ours alone.
Christina Slamon August 08, 2012 at 08:04 PM
Fairmont (also located in El Cerrito) became the neighborhood elementary school for Richmond Annex after Alvarado was closed. We actually did a transfer to Madera for elementary school but would have been very happy at Fairmont as well.
Giorgio C. August 09, 2012 at 02:26 AM
Yes, Delkin. We are ONE district. So let's tell President Ramsey to issue an apology to Pinole and Hercules for his suggesting otherwise. The WCCUSD is a microcosm of our society. Again, President Ramsey fails to understand this. For our school board, we need those who unite, not divide. If incumbents Antonio Medrano and Tony Thurmond did not go on record protesting President Ramsey's comments, then I encourage folks not to re-elect them as their silence also encourages division, not unity.
C Note August 09, 2012 at 04:17 AM
Thank you Christina, that answers my question.

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