Class Crunch: A Case for Magnum PI 

Caught in an impasse with the local school district, the city of Hercules plans to hire private snoops to nab nonresident schoolkids.

Hanging behind the front desk at Hercules City Hall is a framed bit of packing crate stamped with the words "Hercules Powder. High Explosives. Dangerous." The tiny waterfront city spent its early days as the property of a dynamite manufacturer called the Hercules Powder Company before morphing into what is now one of the East Bay's fastest growing residential communities.

Now residents sit atop a new powder keg, a short-fused struggle between city leaders and the West Contra Costa County school district over the city's future, insofar as that future depends on classroom capacity. And the latest flashpoint -- the city council's approval of $75,000 for private eyes to conduct background checks on students -- has ignited a controversy in its own right.

City leaders want to stem what has become a common problem for small cities with successful schools: an influx of children from nearby towns whose parents enroll them using the address of a friend or relative. Berkeley Unified, for instance, has long been wary of Oakland residents claiming Berkeley addresses. And in tiny Albany, the superintendent personally goes door-to-door to investigate fishy-looking residency claims.

Hercules city officials believe they have several hundred illegal attendees -- according to one unconfirmed rumor circulating this fall, the district had discovered fourteen kids sharing a single address. Council members are concerned the illicit influx is straining the capacity of local schools even as the town seeks space for a massive wave of new Herculeans. And the city's brand-new middle/high school, they believe, only increases the temptation for outsiders to sneak in.

The details of which PI firm to hire and how the sleuthing would proceed remain to be worked out. Yet the proposal, besides stirring fears of racial profiling, poses a direct challenge to the school district, whose job it is to enforce residency requirements.

While Hercules officials have held off hiring the sleuths until the school board gets a chance to weigh in -- November 18 would be its earliest opportunity -- their action has underscored the rift between the two bureaucracies, which itself stands as perhaps the biggest obstacle to the city's future.

It is perhaps a measure of the strained relations, or the potentially problematic private-investigator proposal, that not a single school board member, nor district spokesman Paul Ehara, nor three of the four members of the Hercules City Council, nor the city's mayor, responded by deadline to interview requests for this story.

That doesn't mean folks aren't talking about it. The PI plan has even trickled down to the kids, including Hercules tenth-graders Ryndell and "Moose," who were hanging out last week near their school parking lot. "It's a horrible idea," Moose says. "Instead of worrying about where kids live, we should be getting better classes."

Ryndell thinks otherwise. "Personally, I don't think kids who don't live here should go here, because we're spending our tax dollars on them," he counters.

Hercules students widely acknowledge the allure of their new school to outsiders. "It's a better population, a better environment," says Chelsea, an eighth-grader who recently transferred here from Richmond. "It's not like in Oakland, where there's trash and there's shooting. It's safer than Richmond."

But is it fair to investigate, and possibly remove, some of their classmates?

"I think it depends on which type of kids," counters Chelsea's pal, Tatianna. "Is it the good or bad kids?"

That has grown-ups worried, too. The proposal has already generated plenty of concern about which kids will be singled out. "What's the profile? Are they going to go for African-American children, Filipino children, white children?" asks Reverend Phil Lawson, who recently retired from his post at Richmond's Easter Hill United Methodist Church and is one of the plan's most outspoken critics. Although Hercules is racially diverse -- about 43 percent Asian, 19 percent black, and 28 percent white, according to the 2000 Census -- Lawson says a lot of the talk he hears about outsiders infiltrating the schools is chalked up to "people from Richmond," which he considers a euphemism for "black."

"The leadership of the city," Lawson says, "ought not to play to people's anxieties and fears and biases."

To be fair, some parents consider these fears overblown. "I'm sure if they hired a well-informed private investigator, it wouldn't be like scaring the child and following them home. I'm sure it would be a spot check," says Carolyn Willing, a resident with three kids in local schools. "It's not like a manhunt. It would be an official-type thing."

Willing and other supporters of the plan hasten to add that they would expect the city to make any investigation truly equitable, and not single out students of any one race, neighborhood, income level, or school achievement level.

Still, giving a private firm access to student records raises confidentiality issues, says Sarah Creeley, a second-grade teacher who opposes the plan. And even if the city generates a list of students in violation, it is powerless to remove any of them from local schools.

"I consider this a waste of city money," Reverend Lawson says. "What this really comes out to is the city giving the school district $75,000."

Actually, what it comes out to is the city pressuring the district to get with its program.

Hercules bills itself "the dynamic city," and it is indeed expanding at a rapid clip. After decades of minimal growth, its leaders have within the past several years paved the way for 2,847 new housing units. Although building them all will take five to seven years, work has already begun on hundreds of pastel-tinted tract homes with perky model names like the Peacock, the Finch, the Daffodil, and the Begonia. As a result, the city's population is expected to balloon from 20,000 to 30,000 over the next decade.

When those new families start moving into their Begonias, will there be any space left in the schools? That's the big concern of parents. Right now, the city has three elementary schools plus the new junior/senior high. City leaders are expanding Hercules Elementary and looking for a site for a separate junior high, but few residents believe that will be enough to meet the growing demand for classroom space. Parents fret that the combination of new kids alongside kids falsely claiming Hercules addresses will crowd classes, overtax teachers, and even push aside children of longtime residents. "A lot of local residents feel that shouldn't happen," Willing says.

So far, the enrollment crunch has been felt mostly at the junior high level. In an attempt to pare classes down to 35 students, administrators have reportedly instituted overflow classes staffed by substitutes, to which students are sent on a rotating basis.

Sterling Bell, principal of Ohlone Elementary, says his school still has space, but adds that enrollment was up by about fifty students this year and is expected to keep increasing. "We don't know the number of school-aged children that will be moving in with these families, so it's just a guessing game," he says.

City leaders are hoping the proposed residency checks will buy the city some time. Officially, at least, the school district requires parents to produce utility bills, mortgage statements, or similar documents to prove they live in Hercules. But Vice Mayor Joanne Ward says scrutiny has been lax. "While you could check everyone's paperwork, over the years it's been kind of something they haven't done," she says. "While that is a great policy, when you're in a situation where your community is growing faster than we can accommodate students, we have to kind of rethink things."

Creeley, who teaches at Hanna Ranch Elementary, believes the crunch isn't just the district's fault. "I think it's reasonable to say that there may be a problem with children being at school under false addresses," she says. "I think people might be hoping that's the whole problem, and I don't think it is. The real problem is that our city has approved many new developments without providing schools for the children who will live in them."

But Hercules officials also blame the district on that front. "It is the obligation of the school district to attend to the growth in their district. We have had numerous public hearings and they have not participated in them or kept track of what we have been doing," says Steve Lawton, the city's director of community development. "There was finger-pointing from the district to the city that somehow we had entitled a whole lot of land without them noticing, but it's their duty to notice and to work cooperatively with the local jurisdictions. It was no secret what was happening here."

In fact, much of the tension between Hercules and its school district hinges on this point. "That always comes up: The school district isn't paying enough attention to Hercules," says Vice Mayor Ward. "We're a little town, and have been little for a long time in a school district that has fifty-plus schools that need attention."

West Contra Costa Unified, of course, has plenty of other fish to fry. It's still recovering from a 1991 bankruptcy, and district resources are going into repairing dilapidated schools rather than building new ones. In addition, its two Richmond high schools regularly post among the lowest test scores in the state, a situation that has brought federal sanctions. Some Hercules residents have rallied for their schools to secede from the district and join the much smaller John Swett district, which includes Crockett, Rodeo, and Port Costa. That proposal even made the 2001 ballot as Hercules Measure G, but was defeated by a seven-point margin.

As for long-term solutions, the most obvious one -- building more schools -- is a tricky prospect in Hercules. The safety of potential sites has to be cleared by the state, and by virtue of being a former dynamite factory, the whole town is a semitoxic brownfield. "There are no more clean sites," Lawton says. The community development director urges the council and the school board to start getting along so that sites can be rehabbed and schools built before the masses move in.

Otherwise the situation, like everything else in the dynamite town's history, risks ending with a bang.

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