The city’s Planning Commission is holding a special meeting tonight regarding TEAM Charter School’s planned move downtown. You can read the background here and here if you don’t know why the meeting was needed.
There’s an overflow crowd here at the City Council chambers, and even in the lobby outside the chambers there are standees. There are more people here than attended the City Council meeting two nights ago. Clearly there are more than 100 people here. Jimmie Rishwain is seated in the front row. The audience seems to be overwhelmingly pro-TEAM Charter School.
Here’s background to the situation from the city, being presented at the meeting by Planning Manager Richard Larrouy.
Community Development chief Steve Chase: “Leaving a block vacant invites trouble.” He said downtowns are redeveloped “one block at a time.”
Members of the Planning Commission so far have asked questions of city officials about a bar near the school and the school’s possible impact on traffic. Recording Secretary Michael McDowell is answering the questions. McDowell said there hasn’t been a traffic problem with traffic at nearby Stockton Collegiate the last two years.
Now, TEAM Charter Director Debbie Eison: She said the school opened last year at Eden Square. Almost all the students are low-income, two-thirds are English learners, and the population is heavily minority. “We opened the school as a response to what we consider a crisis in our community. Education is the only weapon we can use to fight poverty and crime. … Social justice is an interesting concept. Because of who our population is some of our children don’t have a very strong self-concept. We want to give our children a voice and we want them to expect the very best life has to offer no matter who they are.”
Chairman Randy Hatch asked Eison to focus on land use, which is the issue at hand. Eison said there will be a playground and there will be green space. Children will arrive at three different times in the morning. The school will open at 6:30 a.m. and stay open until 6 p.m. She said this will reduce traffic flow. “I don’t think it’s going to be a traffic issue,” Eison said.
Hatch invited Eison to discuss the buildings and location. “Our parents live in these neighborhoods. We recruited our parents from Sierra Vista housing projects and from Conway Homes, from areas that do have challenges.” She added, “We had a lot of thought before we chose this area for our children. … Security is a huge issue. It’s a huge issue at the mall. It’s a huge issue in your own home.” She said there will be security cameras around the school site. There will be fenced parking. “We believe this will be a positive addition to downtown Stockton.”
Commissioner Sam Fant asked about time changes and whether there will be lighting to address time change and make the place secure. Eison there already are lights to illuminate the parking and playground areas, plus there will be a full-time security guard.
Commissioner Ed Surritt asked whether, because the school is chartered through SUSD, will it have access to SUSD police. Eison said the school will not because it is an independent charter. Surritt asked if the PTA will help make sure children cross Main Street safely. Eison said the school doesn’t release children until the parent comes to the play yard to get them. “A child will never be released to any sidewalk area without being in the company of a parent,” Eison said.
Commissioner Sandra Davis, by the way, is absent.
Hatch asked those in favor to raise their hands. Everyone except Rishwain and the man to his right raised their hands.
Dan Cort: “I’m here to support the neighborhood and support downtown. The building requirements have been met and are being met. A school in downtown is what called for … it’s the adaptation of downtown to new uses. Is downtown safe? I think it is. Every student, teacher and administrator at TEAM Charter agreed it’s safe. I applaud these parents, these teachers and these schools for coming to downtown.”
Tacho Zavala supported the school, as did Cort’s Mahala Burns, who said a fence will be installed by Cort for emergency access to the rear of Rishwain’s building.
Tim Kerr, Downtown Stockton Alliance: He said an “extraordinary amount of due diligence” went into choosing the site and that it is a safe area. He said children are improving downtown. He said the DSA is providing additional police support for the school.
Beth Cort: “The way to make a neighborhood safer is to bring more people to it, not to fence it off.”
Tony Washington: Stockton Collegiate parent. He said his daughter, who is 7, loves the school. “There have not been any problems. In support of TEAM Charter, this is really an opportunity to do what’s right by a lot of children in this community. This is a good thing.”
Ruthie Keener: She has two grandchildren at Stockton Collegiate. She said there’s never been concern about safety. She said it’s positive for the kids to be downtown and visit City Hall on field trips.
Mahesh Ranchhod, Downtown Stockton Alliance, also spoke in favor.
A woman from Lockeford has enrolled her daughter in the downtown school.
Property owner Kevin Dougherty, whose property at 621 E. Market Street is being rented by TEAM. His building has been home to an SJCOE one. school for eight years. He said with the SJCOE site, there were never crime problems. He mentioned other schools downtown: Pittman Elementary, Weber Institute, Jane Frederick Continuation, Spanos Elementary, Aspire has a school on American Street, Stockton Collegiate, SECA, Health Careers Academy. “Enterprise is the solution we employ to turn our community around.” He said storefronts will become occupied, blight will disappear.
County Supervisor Carlos Villapudua: He said he went to school downtown. He said Stockton Collegiate has been a good neighbor by his office. “I know Mr. Rishwain. He’s a good friend of mine. I actually believe it’s going to enhance his property. I don’t think we should live in fear.”
John Solis, executive director, S.J. Worknet and president of TEAM: “Coming to the downtown area and seeing people work, I think, is a plus.” He said the area is “much safer” than many other areas where there are schools, plus it will “revitalize” downtown. He said people will only want to live downtown if there are schools downtown.
Gene Bigler, retired professor of international relations: He said putting schools in tough areas is time-honored and has been done internationally for ages. “I wanted to add that to the conversation.”
Now it’s Jimmie Rishwain’s turn. Attorney Michael Matteucci is speaking on Rishwain’s behalf.
Matteucci: “Anybody who believes that this area is a safe area for children is absolutely missing the boat. All you have to do is go down there.” He said he has data from the Stockton Police showing more than 2,600 reports since Jan. 1, 2011, for Main Street. He said 1,948 ranged “from murder to rape to drug dealing to prostitution to abuse of children to pedophilia to shooting into buildings.” Anybody who thinks this is a safe area for children is “out of their mind.” He said the issue is about money, not the education of children.
Matteucci said he only had two days to prepare because the meeting was scheduled hurriedly. He said he has 50 people who would tell you they “would never allow their children to go to school in this area.” He said if people have the crime facts, people will say “no way.” “I don’t care how many people come up here and tell you they want to support this TEAM School, the fact of the matter is if it is approved it will put children in harm’s way.” He said, “I don’t care if they have 10 police officers there. This is not the right place. All of us are in favor of charter schools … at least I am. But in the right area. This is not the right area.”
He said the staff report is “very lacking.” He questioned whether there is asbestos in the building. He said the school has received “a boilerplate recommendation.” He said there has been “inadequate notice” of this hearing. “Less than a week’s notice is inadequate.” (the meeting was scheduled last week). He said the commission should postpone its decision and visit the site. “This building is not a safe building. They can say they are going to put in a playground and all that, but all of that is speculative. None of that has happened. If you approve this, you could certainly approve it conditionally based upon the applicant doing certain things, but the one thing you’re not going to be able to do is you’re not going to be able to change the neighborhood and the people who have committed every crime you can imagine.”
Matteucci: The number of supporters here for TEAM “don’t mean anything.” “When Rosa Parks was on a bus, everybody else was contrary. The numbers are not the issue. The issues are facts. And the facts are that this is an extremely high crime area and that issue has not even been addressed in the staff report.”
Antonio Garcia asked what area Matteucci’s crime report covers. He said American and Main streets.
Sam Fant: Said Matteucci said the issue is about money. Fant asked if an arrangement has been attempted to be worked out. Matteucci said there has not been and if the building were rehabbed, it would improve the value of Rishwain’s building. “Any reasonable person would be concerned about children being in an area like this.” Fant asked about offers and counteroffers between the parties. Matteucci said the information did not come from his client (Note: I have a letter from Rishwain to the Corts making a rear-access proposal and saying he would drop his protest if the proposal was accepted).
When asked for a show of hands of opposition to the school, the opposition is Rishwain, his lawyer and one woman in the audience.
Rishwain: “I have no objection to the school. But it’s the wrong location.” He said there are 61 sex offenders in the area. “I think the city shirked its responsibility. This is harm’s way. If something happens, God forbid, we would be all sorry.”
No questions for Rishwain.
Opponent Dolores Washington: “Another charter school should not be in downtown Stockton. The one that is there has been successful as far as the news media goes. If you’re actually in there, there are many things that are under cover. I am a retired teacher. I taught for 42 years. I am currently a substitute for Lincoln Unified School District. This puts me in contact with behaviors of children when they are in a controlled, safe, state-coded environment, and they still have problems. I would not allow my children to go in a building that did not meet the state code for safety. Along with this, I have also substituted in two charter schools in Stockton. There’s one that is so unsafe I will not go back to it. It’s unsafe not only because of the behavior the children but the condition of the building. I am opposed to the use of the land downtown for the school.” She also said, “A sex offender cannot live within such a distance in a community but you tell me a school can move into an area where there are known and listed sex offenders? I cannot understand.” She said, “We are in Stockton. We’re in bankruptcy. We’re in trouble. … I am a lover of children but their safety does come first.”
Eison now gets a chance to answer Rishwain’s arguments. She deferred to Dan Cort.
Cort said: He said the past occupant was San Joaquin County Environmental Health so they were up to code. He said the problems come from boarded-up buildings. “You can make facts do anything you want for you. You can make them do ballet for you. Everyone here tonight wants their children to go to school down there. We should not be held hostage by one individual.”
Rishwain asks for chance to respond. He’s denied because the applicant is the only one with right of rebuttal.
Antonio Garcia asked about neighborhood kids walking to the school. Will they be safe. Eison: “We haven’t had that issue. I really can’t speak to that. That’s what we ask parents to do. It’s a matter of safety.”
Commissioner Christina Fugazi: Will the school work with RTD? Eison: “Some of our parents do come via bus.” Eison said students won’t be riding to school alone, without parents.
Now, they are having a break for five minutes.
OK, back in business at 7:42 p.m.
Steve Chase was asked if there are legal concerns about lack of notice of the event. Chase said no. Chase said the project has been “fully plan-checked.”
Ed Surritt: “I’ve been around downtown for 61 years. Today I got out of my car and walked by the property. Definitely the town has evolved, probably not in a positive way. I think it’s time to turn it around. I think this is a great idea.”
Sam Fant: He asked about sex offenders and whether there’s any law that would force sex offenders to move out of a facility in the area. Offenders under supervision might be forced to move away, he was told. Fant: “I do agree we should not live in fear. This is an opportunity to enhance the already growing footprint of downtown. I look at Spanos Elementary and Gleason Park. Those are places that were controlled and run by drug dealers and addict. I look there now and don’t see graffiti, I don’t see trash and bottles. As long as everyone says, ‘It’s bad. Don’t go down there,’ I think criminals win. We cannot continue to run and hide. This is our city, our community. I support this. We need life in downtown.”
Christina Fugazi: “As a teacher and a teacher at a charter school, I don’t take this lightly at all. I know there’s a lot of support for this school but I don’t think it’s the most desirable location. I don’t think we should be naive in thinking drop-off is going to be that smooth. I think there were a couple of contradictions that make we question some things.” She said there was testimony that it’s a neighborhood school, yet there will be kids from Modesto and Manteca. “I’m all for anything that benefits kids. I think this can benefit kids but we won’t know until this happens.”
Randy Hatch: “I tend to agree the way to add vitality to downtown is to evolve, to add life to it, to add people and activities, different things to do and places to go. A school very much fits into that. It may bring people to the downtown that up to now haven’t come to the downtown. That’s what we want. I’m a parent. I’m a grandparent. As a parent I’m responsible for what’s safe for my kid and as a grandparent I get to influence what’s safe for my child. I think the parents are the appropriate person to determine what’s safe for their child.” “This is the right thing to do.”
Hatch made a motion in favor of the school’s approval.
Steve Lopez: “All of us up here want to revitalize downtown. To do that we have to have good projects to fill downtown. We’re always concerned about safety. Is downtown safe? I live north. There’s crime all over.”
Antonio Garcia: “This is a difficult one. The big concern I have is the safety for the kids. … I have a concern of parents not dropping their kids off and being signed in. That’s a big concern. On the other hand, this is a charter school. These parents are choosing the school.” He said parents who work downtown will be able to volunteer at the school or come get their kids at school if their kids are sick. He said kids he’s seen downtown on field trips are orderly pedestrians. He supports the school and said he will second Hatch’s motion.
Fugazi: Commission’s “charge” is to determine what’s safe. She said the school will make the neighborhood safer, but is the neighborhood safe for the kids?
The vote: The school gained approval by a 6-0 vote.
Hatch said Rishwain has 10 days to decide if he will appeal. I asked Rishwain if he will appeal. “You’ll know when I tell you,” he said.