The Ties That Bond 05/28/98
Secession issue threatens to derail bond measure in Pajaro Valley.
Thursday, May 28, 1998
It''s no secret that schools in California are long overdue for a facelift. State legislators are working on a $9 billion educational facilities bond measure for November''s ballot to remedy the worst cases. But in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, an emotional debate over whether to split the district is threatening passage of their bond measure on June 2. At issue is whether passage of the $75 million bond will help or hinder Aptos''s efforts to form its own district.
Aptos''s attempt to split off from the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, now containing 18,000 students, is either a move toward racial segregation or a victory for local parental control, depending on who you talk to.
Aptos is an unincorporated area of Santa Cruz County stretching roughly from the southern border of Soquel to just past Larkin Valley Road. Roads wind through apple orchards and redwood canyons, down to the Seacliff resort. Each year there are Christmas tree lightings and a Fourth of July parade. There are six schools in the Aptos area.
The Pajaro Valley to the south has Watsonville as its population center and 20 schools within its confines. It has a vibrant history as an agricultural town, once home to a booming packing and shipping industry, now struggling to redefine its future in a changing economic arena. Nearly 40 percent of families in Watsonville are Latino, many of them migrant farm workers.
In 1996, a group of Aptos parents petitioned the state to form their own district. The group, led by parents Barbara Palmer and Nancy Mauro Bensen, say they were appalled at the test scores at their children''s elementary school and throughout the district.
"We have test scores that are some of the lowest in the United States. Eleventh percentile and 9th percentile aren''t unusual," says Palmer. After hundreds of hours of meetings trying to solve the district''s problems as a whole, a group of parents decided it was best to split into two smaller districts. The Santa Cruz County Office of Education forwarded the petition to the state, recommending its conditional approval, citing three major areas that needed resolution: that the new district not cause ethnic segregation, disrupt educational programs, or cause the state to have to further subsidize either the new or remaining district.
After studying the matter, the state postponed a decision, suggesting the interested parties work to resolve the shortcomings before bringing it back to the state Board of Education. A year and a half later, parents asked the state to reactivate their petition. The hearing was tentatively scheduled this May, but the board struck the item from its agenda when it heard there was a bond issue to renovate and build new schools in the Pajaro Valley district on the June ballot.
That''s when the discussion began about whether the bond''s passage would help or hinder the secession cause in the state''s eyes.
The last time the Pajaro Valley district passed a bond measure was 34 years ago. Since then, overcrowding and dilapidation have become an obvious problem in district schools. Aptos High was designed to house 1,800 students, but 2,200 now attend, pushed into crowded cafeterias and gymnasiums, and portable buildings. Aptos High Principal David Hare describes a rainy winter without an indoor eating place where "students were huddled like water rats under the walkway awnings!" His school is in line for nearly $12 million in renovation money, with bond funds going to build a new high school to ease overcrowding.
Most parents in Aptos and the Pajaro Valley agree the schools need repairing and are overcrowded. But that''s where the agreement ends. Some Aptos parents have said they wouldn''t support the bond unless they have a guarantee they could have their own district. Conventional wisdom and the numbers of registered voters say if Aptos doesn''t vote for the bond, it won''t pass by the needed two-thirds majority. Aptos has a higher number of individual homes, and pays higher taxes per capita than Watsonville residents. The way the bond is distributed, Aptos pays a higher share of the bond, but receives less money. Aptos would get $31,694,955 and Watsonville $43,305,704.
Aptos parent Palmer says that in the past, the district grossly mismanaged funds, going way over budget. But Superintendent John Casey has been trying to reassure voters that new minds are running the store. "I''ve had a lot of experience with managing construction projects. Right now we''ve got a team that better than anyone else can pull this off." About the linking of secession with the bond he adds, "I''ve been very clear that Measure A''s passage will enhance the chances for reorganization." His office recently issued a pledge not to use district funds to fight the secession if the bond measure passes.
Last month, 70 Aptos parents met with Watsonville City councilmembers Tony Campos and Dennis Osmer to discuss the bond. "The people of Aptos are saying, ''We don''t want to pass a bond unless reorganization is a sure thing,''" says Palmer. Palmer and both councilmembers say several parents who attended asked the city council to pledge neutrality on secession in exchange for their support of the bond. Both councilmembers refused. "They think they''ve got a trump card, but no card exists." says Osmer says.
Hare says he thinks parents who want to hold the bond measure hostage are in the minority. "If the bond passes and we don''t split off from Pajaro, we have a renovated high school with less crowding. If it passes and we form our own district, we start with a renovated high school with less crowding. We can''t lose."