News & Notes 

Are Piedmont schools worth two hundred grand? Chaconas doesn't think so; Daily Cal keeps its digs; and ANG staff begs for more.

Educated, but broke: How much does it cost to get a decent public education in the East Bay these days? Well, it's supposed to be free, but if you really want your kids to get the best, be prepared to shell out at least a few hundred grand and pack your bags for Piedmont. The tiny enclave's school district routinely leaves its beleaguered urban counterparts in the dust. Piedmont's Beach Elementary and Oakland's Emerson Elementary, for instance, are only one mile apart, but it might as well be a light-year. Last year, 93 percent of Beach fourth graders were rated by the state as proficient or advanced in standardized English tests; over at Emerson, 89 percent were below proficiency. Ouch.

"The schools are the biggest reason people move to Piedmont," says Kathie Berg of Marvin Gardens Realty in Berkeley. And wannabe Piedmonters pay handsomely for the move. A 1,200-square-foot house that would sell for half a million in the Oakland hills might cost $700,000-and-up in Piedmont, says Berg. And what do you get for that extra $200K? Lifetime access to public schools that are, to be honest, basically private schools.

"I've done the math," says Berg. She compared the cost of buying a home in Oakland and sending your kids to private school with the cost of buying in Piedmont and relying on its public schools. "If you have one child to send to a private school in Oakland, it was still reasonable," she reports. "But the second you have two children, it absolutely makes sense to buy in Piedmont."

Well, at least if you can afford it. Rumors abound of less-affluent parents faking Piedmont residency in order to get their kids across the district borders. Piedmont's proof-of-residency requirements are only moderately tougher than those of other local districts. Prospective parents must provide a property deed or a rental agreement in a city with hardly any rental properties. District officials say they aren't aware of any desperate Oakland parents sneaking their kids into the schools.

Uneducated, and broke: Still, it'd be hard to blame Oakland parents for wanting to deceive their way into neighboring districts; most of the families who can afford to flee for private schools have already done so. By the numbers, at least, the state of public education in Oakland is nothing short of pathetic. In grade nine, 84 percent of the kids were below the national average in reading -- and this is not a nation that reads much. It gets slightly worse in grade ten. And while the number of reading flops declines to 79 percent by the junior year, that's probably because the very worst students have dropped out.

Interesting, then, that Oakland Unified Superintendent Dennis Chaconas would violate unwritten protocol to prematurely trumpet the district's scores on state standardized tests to the media. Chaconas was "happy," he said, at the district's improvements. Fine. Improvement is good. But the numbers cited are the new ones. Only grade two showed a significant gain. And what parent, given the choice, would send his or her kid to high school in a district where just sixteen percent of ninth graders can read with any proficiency?

Therein lies the biggest impediment to change in the school district: Godawful schools beget godawful schools. When the most motivated students depart for greener pastures, what's left behind are kids who don't care, or who don't have a choice. For many parents educated in the public schools, and who want to believe in the system, removing their children is a struggle -- both emotionally and financially. Even parents with good intentions and progressive values would be loath to bet their kids' futures on their own high ideals. Chaconas has a formidable challenge ahead.

Lease, not broke: Looks like the axe won't fall on the Daily Cal after all. Earlier this summer, ASUC president Wally Adeyemo proposed booting the UC Berkeley student paper out of its campus offices in order to provide room for worthy but homeless student groups. This act came on the heels of a series of Daily Cal stories critical of his administration, and many observers thought his last act as president was just petulant payback. But Adeyemo's successors were willing to give the paper a new lease on life. A few sticking points remain in negotiations; ASUC landlords still want the paper to give up some space to student organizations, a request the Daily Cal staffers aren't too happy about. But at least they'll have a place to hang their hats.

Projector, not broke: Last we heard from the Fine Arts Cinema ("Intermission at Fine Arts," June 19), the beloved Berkeley repertory movie house was set to shut down June 30 to prepare for a rebirth in a new mixed-use building on the same site in early 2004. It did indeed close, but now the Fine Arts is, ahem, reopening in the same tatty digs -- through December 31, perhaps longer. Seems the property's owner, Patrick Kennedy's Panoramic Interests, pushed back the timeline for demolishing the building. Why? Because under the original plan, the project's upstairs housing units would open in January 2004. January, apparently, is a slow month to put rentals on the market, so the entire process was pushed back a few months to accommodate the company's marketing plan. Fine Arts co-owner Keith Arnold is pretty sanguine about this game of musical cinema seats. "They're letting us reoccupy the building, so we're going on calendar and booking films," he says. "We cranked out a calendar in very short order." The theater is set to reopen, with the same old seats but hopefully new popcorn, on August 22.

Reporters, very broke: Last Friday afternoon, a couple dozen Oakland Tribune editorial staffers and union folk were picketing in front of the Tribune Tower downtown, passing out handbills and chanting slogans like: "We're on the front page, so give us a wage!" and "They live in the hills; I can't pay my bills!"

Simultaneously, employees at the Hayward Daily Review, Fremont Argus, San Mateo County Times, and the Tri-Valley Herald -- which are among the other regional rags owned by ANG Newspapers -- held similar protests to mark the one-year anniversary of their contract's expiration.

Inked in 1998 after a dozen years of negotiations, that deal had guaranteed only paltry annual raises, ranging from 0.67 to 1.5 percent. Newspaper employees and the Northern California Media Workers Guild have since tried to negotiate a new deal with the company, which is owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group. The process has already taken fourteen months and is only a third of the way there, says Trib reporter Sean Holstege, a representative of ANG's bargaining unit. That's unacceptable, he says: the Guild has long had a comprehensive proposal on the table, but the company has done little to address the wage issue.

Holstege, who covers transportation, has worked at the Trib for seven years and in journalism for twice that long, yet says he makes less than an entry-level reporter at the Chron. "I'm 36 and I'm still living paycheck to paycheck," he says. "They'll tell you it's economic times, but when we had the biggest boom in recent history, there was only a one percent raise."

The protests were timely, since the Vacaville Reporter just announced its sale to MediaNews -- now the nation's seventh-largest newspaper group. Snatching up new papers may not seem like the best idea, since MediaNews, according to its most recent financial report, is $991 million in debt, and many in the company's local newsrooms have not received raises in two years.

"I think it's amazing that a company that's been downgraded to junk-bond status, that has made no moves to give people raises given the cost of living in San Francisco, and that is hundreds of millions of dollars in debt because of over-leveraging, can find the money to buy another family newspaper and merge it into the conglomerate," says local Guild representative Erin Tyson Poh.

Trib staffers aren't asking for a contract like the Chron's -- which is considered a superb deal -- just something fair. ANG is the only major newspaper chain in the area that doesn't provide domestic-partner benefits, Holstege adds. Plus employees only get five sick days when ten is the norm. Such substandard wages and bennies have led to an average annual turnover of thirty percent. And when seasoned reporters split, the quality of coverage declines. "It's a journalism thing as much as a labor thing," Holstege says.

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