In a hotly contested move, the Ross Valley School District has set a deadline — backed up by an eviction notice — for a deal to sell the area’s only subsidized child care center back to its operators.
If the process is not completed by Aug. 31, the Fairfax-San Anselmo Children’s Center will have to vacate the complex at Deer Park in Fairfax. The district trustees approved the deadline through a resolution in a 4-0 vote on Wednesday, with Wesley Pratt absent.
The Aug. 31 date is three months later than a timeline presented at last week’s meeting to get the deal done.
Trustees said the notice to vacate was the only way they could establish legal protection from personal liability in case of an accident or fire at the center over the next 11 months. In exchange, trustees said, the resolution gives the center’s staff, students and parents a guaranteed stability and security of occupancy for almost another year.
“We are not working to close the center down — that’s not what’s happening,” Shelley Hamilton, the board president, said before about 150 people at Wade Thomas Elementary School in San Anselmo.
“We don’t need to be divided,” Hamilton said. “We all need to come together to make this happen.”
Leaders of the children’s center disagreed. The eviction clause “will seriously undermine the progress we’ve made thus far,” said Alexis Robinson, a member of the center’s board.
“Our primary concern is that the resolution does not, despite the misleading title, ‘secure’ our occupancy. Quite the opposite,” Robinson said. “It says, in advance, that the district intends to evict us on a specific date – Aug. 31, 2023 – unless the district takes contrary action before then. Why would this board choose to send that message to the community, now of all times? You don’t have to. Please don’t.”
Center board member Carl Brown added that the two sides had been operating together in good faith — until now.
“We have shown up, we have worked collaboratively,” he said. “This resolution now tears us apart.”
The center, which serves more than 100 children of low-income families or those from underserved populations in Marin, is leasing the property from the district on a month-to-month basis. That arrangement began after two previous long-term leases expired over the course of about 50 years that the center has been operating at the site.
The controversy started in March, when center co-directors Heidi Tomsky and Erik Schweninger asked the school district for a four-year lease extension so they could apply for state grants to make improvements. Terry Tao, the district’s attorney, told trustees he would not recommend a lease extension.
Instead, Tao advised trustees to give the center 30 or 60 days notice to vacate because of liability concerns. Tao said the site needs costly renovations to bring it up to various state and local building and fire codes.
Neither the trustees nor the district staff chose to act on Tao’s recommendation, saying it was not a fair amount of time for the center to find another spot. Instead, the district formed a partnership with the center to look at options for selling or transferring the property back to the center, or to another public entity that would keep the property as a child care center.
“This deadline of Aug. 31 is a lot longer than what we had been looking at before — 60 days,” trustee Marie Henrio said before the vote Wednesday. The resolution includes a clause that would allow the district to retake ownership if there were a crucial need for the property by the school district, or if something happened to threaten its use as a child care center.
Trustee Rachel Litwack said there is room for flexibility on the Aug. 31 deadline if the sale process needs another few months to complete.
“This is the best bet for the community and to help us with liability — and to help you get this purchase done,” Litwack said. “For me, we’re doing this in good faith.”
Trustee Ryan O’Neil agreed. He took issue with public commenters who attacked the board for allegedly having some sort of hidden agenda to marginalize the mostly Latino families by making the sale process too complicated for Spanish speakers to follow.
The district has provided Spanish translation at the board meetings, but many of the documents posted online are in English and not easy to find on the district’s website.
“Respect goes both ways,” O’Neil said after the public comments. “I listen, I take notes. I have already said that I highly value this center.”
The district has already committed thousands of dollars for a fire risk assessment report and consultants for the process. It intends to spend another $17,000 on an appraisal and $44,000 on a committee process to decide whether to declare the property as surplus.
Trustees are expected to authorize establishment of the committee at the next board meeting in October. After that process, the property must be offered to other public entities first before the district could move ahead with the sale.
As to the sale price, the district is barred by law from going lower than 25% of the fair market value, Tao said Wednesday night. If the price goes below that, the state considers it a gift of public funds, which is prohibited.
The fair market value will be established by the appraiser, who was due to start work Thursday, according to Hamilton.
“Some of this process is difficult,” O’Neil said. “We’re bound by what we can do and what we can’t do.”
LoRayne Ortega, a teacher at Archie Williams High School in San Anselmo, was skeptical that the district is so legally pressed that it has to give the center an eviction notice, she said.
“I understand we have to abide by the laws — but if you really truly cared, you could find a better way,” she said during public comment time at the meeting.
“The bottom line is, we have a lot of policies and procedures that are discriminatory, that don’t allow underrepresented people to thrive,” she added. “There’s always a way to fight against that.”
Hamilton, in a social media post earlier Wednesday, challenged the notion that the district trustees were not acting in good faith or were being discriminatory against underserved populations. She said she was speaking out as a Ross Valley citizen, not as a public official.
“The process of selling Deer Park to the center has been, and will likely continue to be, complicated and challenging,” she wrote. “And, while RVSD and FSACC may not agree every step of the way, I believe that if we hold true to our common dedication to our shared outcome, and honor a reasonable give-and-take relationship in finding our way forward, we will be successful.”
She urged the community to “help the process along with constructive engagement.”
“Let’s not step back into a fight, let’s step forward into action and together make this sale transaction work,” Hamilton wrote. “Let’s not get distracted by finger-pointing, accusations and acrimonious public discord.”