Walnut Creek’s City Council on Tuesday unanimously passed a resolution of support for a proposal that would result in five affluent Walnut Creek schools leaving the Mt. Diablo school district to form a new district.
About 150 people piled into City Hall to hear the council weigh in on the proposed Northgate Unified School District, a secession movement spurring contentious debates within both Walnut Creek and the broader Mt. Diablo school community. Council members said they were inundated with more than 200 emails asking them to take a stand on the proposal, despite it being the county and state education boards that ultimately have authority to bring the issue to the ballot before voters.
Yet, after hearing four hours worth of testimony from both sides of the debate, council members still avoided taking a definitive stance on the merits of the proposed secession. Instead, they struck a blow to Mt. Diablo supporters by passing a resolution stating that, should the proposal get the green light from state and county boards, the issue should be voted on only by those who live within the proposed boundaries of the new district, not the school community at large.
Superintendent Nellie Meyer conceded that the city council's decision was a disappointment, but expressed confidence that the county and state boards would not approve the proposal.
"While we believe the issue unlikely to go before the community for a vote, we are dismayed that the council approved a resolution that would restrict the voice of the people to some specific zip codes when the impacts would be felt by families and staff throughout the district," Meyer said in a statement.
Council members also chastised district leaders for failing to adequately communicate with Northgate families, who make up 13 percent of the district. Unanswered emails and phone calls may have inadvertently shrouded the district's workings in secrecy, Silva said.
“I am supportive of the resolution because I am supportive of a transparent process,” Councilwoman Cindy Silva said. “I’m confident that if the county decides to move it forward, and subsequently if the state board of education decides to move it forward, it’ll be because they’ve decided it will not damage the Mt. Diablo school district.”
The proposed district would include Northgate High and its feeder schools, Bancroft, Valle Verde and Walnut Acres elementary schools and also Foothill Middle. As critics of the proposal pointed out, those schools are all located in the wealthier neighborhoods of Mt. Diablo's current district, which includes huge swaths of Contra Costa County, including schools in Concord, Martinez, Pittsburg, Pleasant Hill, Lafayette, and, at least for now, Walnut Creek.
Northgate PACS, the action committee behind the proposal, argued that Mt. Diablo, the largest district in the county, has been slow to respond to complaints from Northgate families. Its supporters also point to low-ranking test scores as evidence that the district is simply too large to oversee all of its 56 schools and 32,000 students.
“Our district is so big. Our voices are often not being heard,” said resident Sara Shelley. “People are leaving in droves, because they just don’t want to deal with it.”
The Tuesday meeting drew scores of teachers and students who rebuffed those assertions, many donning red “MDUSD PROUD” buttons. They noted that the boundaries for the new district would essentially create one, uber-affluent and predominantly white district and warned that the secession was rooted in elitism. Others expressed fears that the secession would ruin special education programs at the school, many of which rely on district support.
“I sat in a room that lacked in diversity and heard arguments about how much better the schools would be if they excluded kids from outside of their neighborhood,” said Tina Segrove, president of the board of directors for the Eagle Peak Montessori. “Of course, words like race, income and segregation were not spoken, but it was clear their goal was to create their own small, exclusive school district.”
Critics also accused Northgate PACS of using dishonest methods to garner signatures for a petition they submitted to the county board, including making false promises about the proposed new district.
The same arguments are expected to unfold on May 2 and 3, when the county Board of Education will hold two public hearings on the proposal. Once there, the merits for forming a new district will be evaluated on nine criteria, including whether severing the district would cause financial woes for Mt. Diablo or exacerbate segregation.