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School District Shuts Out Sports

Facing a budget crisis, officials slash programs in the eastern Bay Area. Students and parents protest the decision.

March 11, 2004|Erika Hayasaki and Patrick Dillon | Special to The Times

RICHMOND, Calif. — Parents and students are crying foul over the West Contra Costa school district's decision this week to eliminate all sports, libraries and counselors from its six high schools after voters failed to approve a special parcel tax.

"What's Friday night without a football game?" asked Ed Hammer, baseball coach at the Northern California district's De Anza High School, near Berkeley. "You go have pizza, go out with girlfriends and buddies.... It is something kids are going to miss out on. It's sad."

The 35,000-student West Contra Costa Unified has a history of severe financial troubles over the last 13 years, including bankruptcy and state takeover. The district serves a mixture of poor immigrant families and affluent suburbanites in such East Bay cities as El Cerrito, Richmond, San Pablo, Pinole and Hercules.

It is the first district in California to dump its athletics program because of budget cuts, according to Marie Ishida, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation, which represents 1,348 public and private high school sports programs in the state. A few other districts have trimmed coaching stipends, umpires, teams and equipment, she said.

Over the last two days, students at several district schools have staged walkouts to protest the cuts. On Wednesday, about 200 students left Pinole High School and some stomped on cars and looted a nearby convenience store, according to school board President Charles Ramsey. Police are investigating the incident for possible arrests.

Some students may transfer to private schools to stay in sports programs. De Anza High School sophomore James Kyle Tom, 17, is one of them.

"The school needs sports. Without sports it's all learning and nothing else. It will be really boring," said James, who did not participate in the walkouts.

His father, Jeff Tom, said James had played baseball since the age of 5. Lately, he's been moping around the house because he doesn't want the district to get rid of his team, Tom said.

"Sports helps with discipline. It is the one thing he enjoys when he goes to school. It helps him keep interested in school. It makes him a more well-rounded person," Tom said.

He added that he and other parents were also worried how college admissions would be affected by the reductions in counseling and Advanced Placement courses.

District officials said they had no choice but to cut deeply, especially since the proposed parcel tax that would have raised $7.5 million annually for five years to support sports, counseling and other programs, failed in last week's election. It received 62.5% of the votes, just short of the two-thirds required.

On Tuesday, the five-member board unanimously approved $16.5 million in cuts for the start of the next school year, laying off 200 employees, including all high school counselors and librarians, and forcing 39 elementary schools to drop music instruction. Eliminating the athletic program in the fall will save $500,000 a year.

Ramsey said the district had chopped everything down to the "core basic academic program, where we will only be able to teach students to read and write."

"It's terrible," he said. "We've issued the death penalty to these kids. One has to rethink what is the actual function of education?"

However, district Supt. Gloria Johnston held out some hope that private donations might reduce program cuts. She said she had been knocking on the "doors of corporate America." On Wednesday, Wells Fargo Bank gave the district a check for $50,000 to go toward all programs, including athletics, and Mechanics Bank, a regional bank based in in Richmond, donated $25,000. In addition, the Oakland Athletics baseball team offered to allow students to sell tickets to three upcoming games and share as much as half of the proceeds, which could amount to as much as $100,000.

School board member Glen Price said that voters were probably not aware of how severe the cuts would be if the parcel tax failed. He added that there were still lingering feelings of mistrust against the school district, formerly known as the Richmond School District, since its 1991 bankruptcy and state takeover. At the time, the district was $30 million in debt.

The district still owes the state $18 million from a bailout loan, and is supposed to pay $1.8 million per year on the balance through 2017.

The state superintendent of public instruction, Jack O'Connell, said the district's situation was very unusual because it was facing both declining enrollment and a high debt burden. He said it was unlikely the state would be able to provide more money.

"There's no silver bullet. I don't want to raise expectations unrealistically," he said.

The district's athletic heritage is rich. Gino Torretta, the Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Miami in 1992, played football at Pinole Valley High. Drew Gooden, a forward for the Orlando Magic basketball team, is from El Cerrito High.

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