The El Cerrito Performing Arts Center is a spectacular building by any measure, the kind of structure that politicians are proud to show off. It's a beautiful, state-of-the-art space with a convertible orchestra pit, balcony seating, and audio-visual equipment commonly used in professional theaters. In fact, Berkeley West Edge Opera, a critically acclaimed professional opera company, began using the theater for its performances last year.
Mark Streshinsky, the opera's artistic director, can't stop gushing about the center. "It's just fantastic," he said. "It has a pit, it has space — it was exactly what we needed." Streshinsky said the arts center was part of the reason behind his decision to take the job as opera director. And in its first season in the new building, West Edge sold more tickets per performance than it ever did when it was renting Berkeley's Julia Morgan Performing Arts Center.
But industrial-quality A/V equipment and high-tech catwalks don't come cheap. The theater project — the crown jewel in the West Contra Costa Unified School District's construction program and part of a larger effort to renovate El Cerrito High School — cost about $22.6 million, according to WLC Architects, one of the firms that oversaw it.
But for some observers, El Cerrito High, along with its high-priced arts center, has become a troubling symbol. In it, they see the biggest and best distillation of what they perceive to be an institutional preference for high-income El Cerrito over lower-income Richmond and San Pablo. After all, the same year the ribbon was cut on the renovated El Cerrito High, Richmond High made national news when a fifteen-year-old girl was gang-raped on school grounds during a dance, and many parents, teachers, and students blamed the assault in part on the lack of lighting, sturdy fencing, or security cameras in the courtyard near the scene of the attack.
For others, the theater's expensive renovation represents something bigger: lavish construction spending and misplaced priorities in a district which only rescued itself from bankruptcy a little over a decade ago, which still struggles with student achievement, and which just two months ago received the lowest grade possible for improving minority achievement among 146 of the state's largest districts. "I always say, we have a Cadillac bond program on a Buick's budget," said Anton Jungherr, a retired school administrator who resigned from the school district's Citizen's Bond Oversight Committee in 2006 "in protest" of what he saw to be unnecessary cost overruns.
Much of this tension crystallized in March 2010, when West Contra Costa's school board had a choice: Ask voters to approve another construction bond, which goes specifically to building projects, or a parcel tax, which goes toward programs and personnel that help kids read and write. The board — which represents some 30,000 students in Richmond, Hercules, El Cerrito, San Pablo, and surrounding unincorporated towns — chose the $380 million construction bond, the district's fifth in twelve years, and placed it on the June ballot. Measure D passed with a seven-percent margin.
Measure D gave West Contra Costa County taxpayers one of the largest bond debts in the country, at nearly $1.4 billion. There's also evidence that it helped the two board members who led the effort for it, Charles Ramsey and Madeline Kronenberg, win re-election. The two El Cerrito politicians received huge campaign donations last year from companies and workers who have benefitted from previous construction bond measures and who stand to benefit more thanks to Measure D.
In an interview, Ramsey said the idea that West Contra Costa prioritizes construction over essential services is "naïve." He also said that the suggestion that there was a quid pro quo — of putting Measure D on the ballot in exchange for big campaign donations — is laughable.
Nonetheless, there is no denying that construction-worker unions and construction firms bankrolled Ramsey and Kronenberg's November 2010 re-election campaigns after the two school board members led the effort to put the construction measure on the ballot. In addition, there's evidence that their decision to push the construction bond ruined any chance of raising more money in West Contra Costa for educational programs. In the year since Measure D passed, the school district has pushed two tax measures that would have helped pay for kids' educational needs, but both lost after facing opposition from those who said they couldn't afford to pay more taxes in part because of all the construction bond measures they had previously approved.
Indeed, for the foreseeable future, it looks as if West Contra Costa will have plenty of money to build shiny new buildings — even as the instruction inside those buildings continues to suffer.
The most recent debate in West Contra Costa Unified between school construction and teaching and learning began in 2009. Charley Cowens, who ran for school board last year partly because he was concerned about the district's huge construction bond program, said that at first it was widely assumed among local activists that the district's next tax measure would fund educational programs and personnel — not construction. "No one was mentioning a bond," he said.
A parcel tax subcommittee was put together, but, Cowens said, "somehow the conversation quickly shifted to be about a bond measure." He continued, "There was never any explanation about why we needed another one. No one outside of the [school] board was crying out for another bond."
In September 2009, the school board hired a San Mateo-based consulting firm, Godbe Research, to conduct a poll on the relative feasibility of a parcel tax versus a bond measure. Godbe's team found that each had roughly the same level of support in the community. But because of Proposition 39, a statewide initiative approved by voters in 2000, bond measures need only 55 percent of the vote to pass, while parcel taxes require two-thirds. With both projected percentages hanging at just about 60 percent, Godbe recommended that if the board wanted to float a tax that year, a construction bond measure would be the safer bet.