Marcos Bretón

Marcos Breton: Poor Sacramento neighborhoods face uphill struggle to reverse school closures

Marcos Breton
Marcos Breton

I want to support the parents of children in some of Sacramento's poorer neighborhoods who have alleged racial bias in a lawsuit aimed at halting the closure of seven neighborhood schools in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

But the bid for an injunction to reverse the closures doesn't seem to stand a chance. It seems very likely to be tossed out of federal court this week. The plaintiffs struggled during a hearing Thursday to make the pieces fit. They have to prove that the school district purposely closed minority schools based on race.

I don't think they can meet the legal standard of proof and I honestly don't believe that the district was driven by racial bias in closing schools months ago.

The story is a lot more complicated than that. The schools that were closed were indeed cited as underperforming, but what they lacked most of all were surrounding neighborhoods with political muscle. They lacked neighborhoods and school programs that could attract students from other areas in an open-enrollment district where people vote for better schools with their feet.

Poverty is what links many of the 2,300 students who were displaced from Washington, Maple, Collis P. Huntington, Fruit Ridge, Joseph Bonnheim, Mark Hopkins and Clayton B. Wire elementary campuses.

Some of these schools, like Maple Elementary just off Franklin Boulevard, are in neighborhoods with 15 percent to 20 percent unemployment. You have elevated high school dropout rates and annual median incomes around $35,000 to $40,000 for families of four.

There aren't enough bus routes in the area or light-rail lines. Buildings are vacant, streets are too narrow and there is no infrastructure to promote walking or stopping to patronize struggling businesses.

Additionally, the closure of Maple came at the end of a year when the Campbell Soup plant – the economic engine of south Sacramento – was marked for closure.

To top it all off, neighbors had to fight against a homeless camp that advocates wanted in the area. They had to fight off a re-entry program for felons that seemed to be gaining traction. They had allies in those fights, but not against the school district – save for Mark Merin, the civil rights lawyer who is pressing their racial bias case.

The demise of Maple was the latest blow in a series of traumas that have residents along Franklin Boulevard feeling abandoned economically by the rest of Sacramento – and attacked whenever someone gets the idea to dump a social services program in the area.

"If we can ever stop defending ourselves, we could get a lot of work done," said Jesus Hernandez, who has a doctorate in sociology from UC Davis and has been trying to help the Franklin Boulevard neighborhood.

A fascinating guy who wrote his thesis on how long-ago racial covenants in Sacramento housing shaped our affluent areas and barrios, Hernandez has been consulting for the North Franklin District Business Association.

Here you have some of the oldest Latino-owned businesses in the area and people who care and want the best for a neighborhood sandwiched between Highway 99 and light-rail tracks.

You also have a community trying to pull itself up by developing its own economic plan in lieu of having political advocates on its side in either the city or the county.

"There has been a history of disinvestment in this area," said Marti Brown, executive director of the North Franklin District Business Association.

For the lawsuit, Hernandez did an analysis that he says would show that district officials gerrymandered the closure criteria to shutter minority schools while keeping open schools with majority white populations that could have been closed.

But because Hernandez insists that source interviews remain confidential, his data cannot be designated as that of an expert witness because defense counsel has a right to cross-examine his sources.

Moreover, lawyers for the district informed the court that Jonathan Raymond, the Sac City schools superintendent, has staked his reputation on preserving schools in other minority neighborhoods by making them "priority" schools.

Critics claim that school closures save only $1 million or so when the district deficit is in excess of $5 million. It's true, but that doesn't account for the full financial picture.

As the Sacramento County grand jury noted three years ago, the district faces a retiree health benefit obligation of more than $500 million.

This played a big role in the district's bond credit rating being lowered earlier this year by New York-based Fitch Ratings.

"Spending cuts have not kept pace with reductions in revenues, despite very painful reductions to programs, because of rising benefit costs," Fitch wrote.

With enrollment dropping nearly 3 percent in five years and general fund revenue dropping 6 percent, according to Fitch, there is a ton of pressure on the district to respond with more cuts – even with more funding from the state and voter-approved bond money.

The same story has played out across the country: School closures are followed by federal lawsuits filed by residents in poor neighborhoods.

With so many layers and burdens of legal proof, proving racial bias seems a remote target.

But the fact remains that these school closure battles are being fought in neighborhoods where people have the least political clout.

It's public education today – a war over money, buildings and pensions.

Call The Bee's Marcos Breton, (916) 321-1096. Back columns, Follow him on Twitter @marcosbreton.