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Year’s school news included a bond, solar, activism

In 2016, much of the COURIER’s education coverage focused on the Claremont Unified School District’s successful attempt to pass a $58 million general obligation bond in the November 8 general election.

With 66 percent of local voters giving Measure G the thumbs-up, you could call its passage a slam-dunk. It was, however, by no means a “Hail Mary” shot. It came after months of research, deliberation and promotion on the part of CUSD staff, board members and community advocates.

District staff spent much of 2015 winnowing down $111 million in identified facilities needs, aiming to halve the dollar amount by only choosing projects that reflected CUSD’s highest priorities.

With this done, school board members—through a show of hands at a January 2016 special workshop—agreed unanimously that they were disposed to pursue a facilities bond.

The board wouldn’t vote on whether or not to put the measure on the November ballot until June but, as Superintendent Jim Elsasser noted, there was much to mull over in the interim.

Would the community support a school bond and, if so, how large?

Beginning with a February 9 gathering, Mr. Elsasser and Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Lisa Shoemaker conducted 38 public meetings where they collected community feedback on just those questions.

Then it was time to select the projects to be included in the bond. A couple items were non-negotiable, Ms. Shoemaker noted: a district-wide roofing project and energy-efficiency upgrades.

At their August 4 meeting, the board voted unanimously to place a $58 million school facilities bond on the November ballot. The bond, soon dubbed Measure G, was bolstered by the efforts of a specially formed advocacy group called RISE (Renew Infrastructure and Sustain Excellence).

The community showed considerable support, submitting dozens of pro-bond letters and columns to the COURIER.

With the bond having passed handily, the district plans to hit the ground running to nab the lowest possible interest rates and construction prices.

At the start of January, CUSD will put out a Request for Qualifications for Architectural and Engineering Services, Service Center Director Rick Cota said. Once the architectural team has been chosen, it will be time to start the construction bidding process.

The district hopes to start some projects as soon as this summer—roofing, the installation of an HVAC system in the CHS gym and the renovation of the CHS and El Roble swimming pools.

“We’re excited to have all of this going on, though, because it’s going to benefit the kids,” Mr. Cota said.

 

Sunny side up

A contract struck between CUSD and a solar power company is another achievement bringing a ray of light to Claremont schools this year.

With energy prices escalating and with the district nestled in a town priding itself on sustainability, CUSD has long been interested in going solar but, with limited funds, couldn’t see a way to do it.

Enter PFMG Solar, a company with a business model that has proved attractive for cash-strapped school districts. A district leases sunlight-collecting arrays from PFMG Solar, which installs them at sites across the district with no money down.

The aim of PFMG is to get every site in a district generating 75 percent of the power it uses. As part of the terms of the lease, the district agrees that—during the 25-year lifespan of the solar arrays—it will buy the percentage of power it generates from PFMG, at a cheaper price than that offered by Southern California Edison. The remainder of energy will be purchased from SCE.

At an August 2015 meeting, the school board met Alex Smith, vice president of sales for PFMG, learning that rather than rooftop panels, the company specializes in solar arrays that can be placed as energy-collecting shade structures near playing fields or in parking lots.

It’s projected the arrays could save the district at least $6 million over the next 25 years, particularly given the trend of escalating prices at SCE.

At its December 17 gathering, the school board voted unanimously to sign the contract with PFMG Solar.

By the end of October, fencing was up at all 10 CUSD school sites and the district office. Construction is moving along nicely, according to Mr. Cota. The district hopes the project—which includes parking lot overhangs at CHS, El Roble and Danbury schools as well as the district office and freestanding shade structures at San Antonio High School and the remaining elementary schools—will be up and running by March.

 

Active dissent

The Claremont Colleges are known for their student activism and none more so than Pitzer College, widely considered the most liberal of the city’s undergraduate institutions. A few causes, however, drew puzzlement and even ire from people across the nation.

The most controversial incident took place prior to the start of the school year, when Karé Ureña (Pitzer ’18) posted on Facebook that she and two friends were planning to live off-campus and needed a third roommate.

Along with mentioning some financial particulars, she noted all potential new roomies should be POC (people of color) only. “I don’t want to live with any white folks,” she emphasized for those who didn’t catch her drift.

When a fellow student expressed concern about Ms. Ureña’s caveat—“POC only? Maybe I’m missing something or misunderstanding your post, but how is that not a racist thing to say?”—the thread continued, with Pitzer students, student government officers and even Resident Assistants (RA) defending Ms. Ureña’s attitude.

“This is to protect POC, not white people. Don’t see how this is racist at all,” one student replied, while another agreed she would be “far more comfortable living with other POC” so she didn’t have to “tiptoe around fragile white feelings” in a space where students unwind.

One woman, an Africana Studies major and RA asserted that white people are “damaging as f*ck,” making it so POC students need to protect themselves from a damaging environment.

The thread was first picked up by The Claremont Independent, a conservative online publication that covers and scrutinizes the Claremont Colleges. Word of the POC-only housing request next spread throughout mainstream news, from an August 11 COURIER article to TV news coverage to stories in publications ranging from the Washington Post to Teen Vogue.  

Many questioned how minority students managed to feel so marginalized at a school like Pitzer, where students resoundingly selected Angela Davis as 2012 commencement speaker. More recently, Pitzer’s keynote speaker at the 2016 graduation was social activist Patrisse Cullors, co-creator of the Twitter hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.

Among online critics, a common epithet used for Pitzer students and their peers across the country was “special snowflakes” who would melt in the real-world.

They characterized today’s young people as being cosseted, through actions like providing “safe spaces” for discussion and professors’ growing tendency to provide  “trigger warnings” before discussing potentially disturbing subject matter.

Despite the uproar, students like Josue Pasillas—president of the Pitzer College Student Senate—flatly denied that the student’s request for non-white roommates was racist.

Pitzer’s president Melvin Oliver, who had just stepped into his role as the college’s first African-American president, asserted in an August statement that the campus would face social challenges as a unit.

“Recently, an article in local media quoted Facebook comments made by Pitzer students regarding their preference in race for their roommates in non-Pitzer housing. Specifically, the post indicated that only people of color should inquire about the housing option,” President Oliver stated in his first-ever email to the Pitzer College community. “While Pitzer is a community of individuals passionately engaged in establishing intracultural safe spaces for marginalized groups, the Facebook post and several subsequent comments are inconsistent with our Mission and values.”

It is yet to be seen what 2017 will yield as far as the racial atmosphere at Pitzer College and at US academic institutions at large. Just this month, it was announced that there would be another pioneering new college president in town. Come fall, G. Gabrielle Starr will succeed Pomona College President David Oxtoby as the school’s first African-American president.

Scripps College also hired a new president, with Lara Tiedens taking the reins as the ninth president of Scripps College.

The above is just a small sample of the educational happenings that galvanized Claremont this year. Whether the local academic scene is celebratory or characterized by dissent, one thing is clear: People in the City of Trees are passionate about education. 

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com