The article below was printed in the Marin Independent Journal on Saturday, June 19, 2010:
Ross Valley board nixes Fairfax school site
A rebuilt Deer Park elementary school won't open in Fairfax anytime soon. In an emotional meeting Thursday night, the Ross Valley School District board of trustees voted 3-2 to expand existing school campuses rather than reconstruct a school at the district-owned Deer Park site on Fairfax's rural south side.
The decision in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the district office finished two years of intense debate about how increased enrollment will be handled within San Anselmo, Fairfax and unincorporated Sleepy Hollow. The student population has increased the most in Fairfax over the past few years.
Trustees Chris Carlucci, Heidi Kritscher Weller and Conn Hickey voted in favor of expanding existing schools, and Rick McCallum and board President Sharon Sagar were opposed.
No matter which way the vote went, the district will be faced with seeking a bond measure to pay for any school expansion and improvements. The board discussed bond measure language after making the Deer Park decision and hopes to have a measure on the November ballot to raise upwards of $41 million for school facilities.
The school site decision came two days after the Fairfax Town Council voted unanimously to oppose the Deer Park site as an option for the district.
Thursday's vote means the Fairfax San Anselmo Children's Center, which leases the Deer Park site and serves about 90 low-income families and at-risk children, will not be forced to move. It also means some kids in the upper
Ross Valley will either not attend the school closest to their home or be forced to switch to another school.
The controversial vote seemed to hinge with Hickey, who said he was upset with the pressure from children's center supporters but did not hear enough support from Fairfax residents who favored building a new school at Deer Park.
"It's striking to me how many Fairfax people who supported the Deer Park option did so quietly," he said before the vote. "Based on the e-mails we received, it was about 50-50, but in public you didn't hear that side."
Carlucci and Kritscher Weller said they based their decision more on what was financially responsible in an era of revenue cuts and declining reserves. Opening Deer Park was estimated to cost $22 million, while expanding existing sites would run about $12.5 million.
Several trustees chastised opponents of the Deer Park proposal, many of whom were involved with the children's center, who "demonized" the board with threatening personal e-mails. McCallum said he was called a racist over the course of more than 40 meetings and received an e-mail that mentioned his anatomy.
"I am left with very little good will with the children's center," he said. "I witnessed some morally reprehensible behavior on their behalf. That doesn't lead me to think they are a partner we want to continue to work with. I never once heard 'thank you' for the more than 20 years we have subsidized them."
Sagar said she, too, was disappointed in how divisive and polarizing the issue was rather than having the town councils and residents come together toward a solution that worked for a majority of people.
"I think we failed our kids," she said. "I guess I was optimistic that we would come together for our kids and set a positive example. As a Fairfax resident, I am sad that the town I live in is saying no to its kids and is making it seem that it's OK to send our kids to another town for school."
Sagar said several individuals who rallied troops on behalf of the children's center were dishonest in some of the information that was disseminated and that they are "willing to hold our kids hostage" by stating that they would not support a bond if the board chose the Deer Park option.
A few San Anselmo parents scolded the board after the trustees made it clear how they were going to vote, saying the San Anselmo schools are full enough now and that Fairfax should face the burden because that's the part of the district that is growing in enrollment.
One topic on which both sides seemed to agree was that increased traffic in any area will cause pedestrian safety problems. Proponents of the Deer Park site said traffic will increase around every other school in the district, and opponents said a new school there would cause problems on a narrow Porteous Avenue.