A Superior Court judge on Monday ordered the debt-ridden Richmond Unified School District not to close its schools today, six weeks ahead of schedule, although it was unclear who would provide the estimated $23.5-million cost of keeping them open.
“The education of children is the function of the state,” Contra Costa Superior Court Judge Ellen James said after a hearing involving a lawsuit by a parents group trying to keep the schools open.
Facing a $29-million deficit, the 31,300-student district in Northern California is the second in state history to file for bankruptcy protection, contending that it has only enough money to meet the payroll through today.
James ordered the state and Supt. of Public Instruction Bill Honig “to ensure that the students of the Richmond Unified School District are not deprived of six weeks of public education while others within the state are not so deprived.”
The judge’s decision met with a mixed reaction in Sacramento, where state officials will now have to find the money to keep the district afloat. The money could come from state funds that are now being provided to other districts or from an emergency appropriation by the Legislature and the governor.
A spokesman for Gov. Pete Wilson said the governor was unhappy with the decision and will seek to appeal it today because it does not solve the district’s long-term fiscal problems.
“The governor is very disappointed with the decision,” said James Lee, a spokesman for Wilson. “At best this is a stopgap, Band-Aid measure,” Lee said. “At worst, it’s a decision that will result in not solving the district’s problem and continue to wreak havoc with these kids next year and the year after.”
Lee said the governor believes the proposal his Administration offered in January was a fair way to solve the problem. It would have provided the funds to keep the district operating but would have allowed a trustee for the district to suspend collective bargaining with teachers if they could not reach a contract agreement.
Honig was pleased with the court’s action.
“It’s good news for the kids in Richmond,” Honig said through a spokeswoman.
Representatives of the Richmond Unified School District Parents/Community Assembly, the group that filed the lawsuit, were “elated” with the judge’s decision.
“We didn’t think the students should be penalized for the district’s problems,” said Joan Kelley-Williams, speaking for the group.
Said Fred Stewart, the district’s state-appointed trustee: “We’re all very relieved. I have discussed this matter with . . . Honig, and we’re going to find a way to come up with the money to keep the schools going.”
Elliott reported from San Francisco and Paddock from Sacramento.