Monday, May 11, 2015

Livermore Officials Try to Block Charter School Financing Bond

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
LIVERMORE -- A charter school operator here is selling investors a $30 million municipal bond to finance the purchase of a new high school building, a seldom-used tactic that has drawn the ire of the local school district which tried but failed to stop it. 

The bond offering to individual and private investors is the second multimillion offering for building purchases undertaken by Tri-Valley Learning Corporation in three years. It already is paying off a $27 million bond it floated in 2012 for the purchase of its elementary and middle school campus here. 

Tri-Valley CEO Bill Batchelor said borrowing money from investors and paying about 6 percent interest frees up the charter school from having to lease old, dilapidated buildings from the school district, buildings that have often been closed for some time. 

"We don't have the ability to levy taxes like school districts do, so that's why we do these bonds," Batchelor said. 

Officials from the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District, which authorized Tri-Valley's charter, worry the school is taking on too much debt and will end up diverting its operating budget to bond payments. In an attempt to scuttle the deal, the district paid an outside lawyer to speak against the bond issuance during a hearing to certify the bond's tax exempt status at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors earlier this week. Supervisors ignored the pleas, however, and unanimously approved the bond. 

"We're not opposed to them at all," insisted Chris Van Schaack, assistant school district superintendent who was interviewed after the hearing. "The only problem we have is if they get themselves in too much debt it becomes our problem. We authorized their charter, and if they are paying $1 million in yearly payments, they might not have money to pay for textbooks and to provide the academic program they promised in their charter petition. And the fact that they told us nothing about it, that kind of scared us." 

Batchelor counters that the school district just "doesn't like charter schools." 

"I was surprised to see them publicly oppose this," Batchelor said. "They have never formally come to us with questions or concerns about the financing that they have been aware of for a long time. I have to speculate that their concerns are just about our permanence in the community." 

The money from the bond money will go to purchase a building for the Livermore Valley Charter Preparatory, a high school which is currently in a building owned by the Livermore Valley Joint Unified School District. And in a complicating twist, the bond will be partially paid back by a separate private school Batchelor is partnering with that will share the new building. Batchelor said he will manage the private school for which he does not yet have a name. 

Batchelor's Tri-Valley Learning Corporation also runs two charter schools in Stockton and one in San Diego. 

Batchelor said his Livermore charter schools, which have about 1,500 students, exist because parents want an alterative to the school district. 

"In places where school districts are doing well, there are no charter schools," Batchelor said. "Charters come in to these areas where parents believe an additional education choice is a necessity." 

Van Schaack said that if his district truly didn't want the charter in Livermore, it would not have included it in a recent parcel tax which brings them about $375,000 a year. 

Nicolas Watson, senior facilities adviser for the California Charter School Association, said about 40 charter schools out of about 1,200 in the state have used municipal bonds to buy facilities in the last year. That's a little over 3 percent of the total. 

"But it's grown in popularity in recent years," Watson said. "I think the bond market and investors are getting more comfortable with charter schools and how they are funded. There are not a lot of options for charter schools that want to buy or build buildings." 

Watson said school districts that worry about charter schools taking on too much debt should help out more financially. 

"They could spend some of their revenue to help with charter school facilities if they are opposed," Watson said. "We don't have any dedicated funding for buildings. We don't want schools to have to spend money on buildings that they could be spending on academics. There's no doubt we would prefer to have a steady spending mechanism for facilities, but that's not the way government works in California." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Emeryville Passes Minimum Wage Law in Line with Oakland and San Francisco

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
EMERYVILLE -- The City Council raised the minimum wage to $14.44 an hour for large businesses and $12.25 an hour for smaller ones starting July 1 with a unanimous vote Tuesday night. 

The $12.25-an-hour rate for small businesses with fewer than 55 employees matches Oakland and San Francisco, whose voter-passed laws cover all workers. 

"The gap between the richest and the poorest is growing and it's out of control," Emeryville Mayor Ruth Atkin said during the meeting. "People who work 40 hours a week should not have to be eligible for any public assistance." 

Emeryville's new wage of $12.25 an hour for small businesses will rise each year in July to $13 an hour in 2016, $14 in 2017, $15 in 2018 and $16 in 2019. After that it will rise based on the local consumer price index. For business with more than 55 employees in Emeryville, the minimum wage will start at $14.44 July 1 and rise every year based on the consumer price index. By 2019 it will be set at $16 an hour with more yearly indexed increases. 

Maribel Martinez, a janitor who works in Emeryville, urged the City Council to pass the new law. 

"I think the minimum wage should go up because everything is expensive -- food, rent," Martinez said. "And then we have to pay for people to take care of our kids. So at end of the month, we don't have money left to pay all our expenses." 

In Oakland, the minimum wage will increase each calendar year with the consumer price index. In San Francisco, the minimum wage will increase to $15 an hour by July 1, 2018, with cost of living increases after that. 

Emeryville's minimum wage beats rates already set by the state of California, Berkeley and Richmond. 

The statewide minimum wage is $9 an hour and will rise to $10 by Jan. 1. Berkeley's minimum wage is currently $10 an hour and will rise to $11 an hour Oct. 1 and then to $12.53 an hour Oct. 1, 2016. Richmond's minimum wage is $9.60 an hour and will rise to $13 an hour by Jan. 1, 2018. 

Cole Tibbetts, general manager of the Oaks Card Club on San Pablo Avenue in Emeryville, spoke against the new ordinance. 

"I'm here to ask the council to delay implementation and conduct an economic impact study," Tibbetts said. "An increase of this size and speed is going to be too much for businesses to handle in such a short time." 

City Councilwoman Dianne Martinez said she was confident businesses could handle the increase. 

"I want to show my gratitude for the small business owners who have dealt with what might be a financial blow," Martinez said. "Our workers are creative enough to figure out how to support their families on a minimum wage, and our businesses are creative enough to make it work for themselves." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Sexual Harassment: Feds Interview Berkeley School Officials

Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
BERKELEY -- Federal investigators are interviewing staff and administrators about sexual harassment at Berkeley High School following the discovery of an Instagram page, created by male students last fall, that included photos of female students accompanied by disparaging sexual comments. 

Five boys were suspended in October for their involvement in the page. Parent Heidi Goldstein filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in December, saying that incident, as well as others, led her to bring the action. 

On Thursday, she said the school district was barring students from being interviewed by investigators this week. 

School district spokesman Mark Coplan denied that claim but was unsure whether any students had been interviewed. A spokesman for the Office for Civil Rights was not immediately available for comment. 

The investigation is the second such inquiry by the federal government around sexual harassment at the school in five years. An investigation in 2010 was started after a 16-year-old student sued her counselor for sexual harassment and filed a complaint with the office. 

A settlement in that case led to the formation of a parent-led sexual harassment policy subcommittee. The counselor also agreed to keep his door and window blinds open when students are in his office as part of the settlement of the separately filed lawsuit. 

In a letter emailed to parents late Wednesday night, Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Donald Evans and school board President Judy Appel said the school district has provided more than 1,000 pages of documents to investigators "in order for them to evaluate our best practices." 

Coplan said some parents at the school were "putting up posters saying BUSD is blocking the investigation and not letting kids talk to them." 

In the letter to parents, Evans and Appel said they worried the interviews would get in the way of teaching and they wanted parents to be notified beforehand. 

"We have raised these concerns with the office of civil rights, and we hope and expect that they will be resolved so that the investigation can be conducted and completed in a timely manner," the letter said. 

Goldstein said the school district has denied any student an interview with investigators. 

"The office of civil rights has asked to talk to students, but so far the district has not come forward and cooperated at all," Goldstein said. "Every proposal the office of civil rights has made with regard to how they engage with students, the district has said no." 

Rebecca Levenson, a parent on the school district's sexual harassment subcommittee, said the group worked for 38 months following the 2010 sexual harassment complaint to craft a new sexual harassment policy that included training for students and accountability for behavior. But the school board ignored the subcommittee and this month instead adopted a watered down "boilerplate" policy that did not include training or consequences. 

"We have a smart school board, but they are really just trying to cover their (expletive) instead of doing prevention work they are supposed to," Levenson said. "We begged each member separately and gave public testimony, and instead they turn around and adopt a boilerplate policy." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Bayer to Spend $100 Million on Berkeley Facility

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
BERKELEY -- Bayer HealthCare is spending $100 million over the next two years to build a product testing facility here for a new hemophilia drug, a project that will create 325,000 hours of construction work, officials said in a news conference Wednesday. 

Bayer's Berkeley campus, which spans three city blocks on 7th Street between Dwight Way and Grayson Street, manufactures a drug for people with hemophilia A called Kogenate. It is expecting FDA approval late this year or early next year on a second hemophilia drug called Kovaltry to be produced at the same site. 

Kogenate is the company's second-biggest drug with $1.2 billion in sales last year behind Xarelto, a blood thinner, that had $1.86 billion in sales in 2014. 

Joerg Heidrich, Bayer Berkeley site head, said the new building will be about 80,000 square feet on three stories. He said it costs so much because "it is a facility that complies with the regulations on human drug testing." 

Heidrich said the company invested an additional $100 million at the same 45-acre site in Berkeley in 2009 for a lab to produce the second hemophilia drug for which it is waiting for approval. 

He said Bayer has been producing hemophilia drugs in Berkeley for 25 years. Last year the Berkeley site paid $71.3 million in local, state and federal taxes. 

The new building, with an array of extremely expensive scientific equipment, will be used to quality test both drugs during the manufacturing process, a spokeswoman said. 

Hemophilia A is a genetic disorder that prevents blood from clotting. According to the National Hemophilia Association website, the disorder affects about 20,000 people in the U.S. People with the disorder often bleed longer and can bleed internally or externally from cuts. Bayer's current hemophilia drug is shipped to 80 countries around the world from Berkeley. 

Bayer HealthCare is the largest private employer in Berkeley, with 1,500 employees. Aside from the construction jobs to build the new facility, the company will not be adding permanent jobs. 

Mayor Tom Bates said Wednesday at a groundbreaking event for the new building that Berkeley is "just so lucky to have Bayer." 

"When they came to us and said, 'We want to build a $100 million building on our property,' we said 'Great,' " Bates said. "We will have union labor and, hopefully, we will see this campus grow and create more of this wonderful product." 

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In Dying Market, Utah to Invest $53 Million in Oakland Coal Exports

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- Faced with rapidly diminishing demand for coal in the U.S., Utah has approved a $53 million investment in an Oakland shipping terminal nearing construction with the hopes of exporting it to less environmentally stringent markets overseas. 

The move has enraged environmental groups, and city leaders are also raising concerns. 

Earlier this month, Utah's Community Impact Fund Board endorsed the investment in Oakland's Terminal Logistics Solutions on behalf of four counties, three of which produce all the coal in the state. 

Terminal Logistics will start building the $250 million Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal at the Oakland Global Trade & Logistics Center later this year and hopes to finish the 35-acre project in 2017. 

"We know Oakland doesn't want coal coming through the city," said Jess Dervin-Ackerman, conservation manager for the San Francisco Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club. "We're ramping down the use of coal in the U.S. because we recognize it's a horrible source of pollution, and it contributes to climate change. This is city-owned land, and to us, it's the responsibility of the city to not let coal be exported." 

But Phil Tagami, the city-designated developer of the project, said his seven years of approvals and environmental entitlements secured to develop the former Oakland Army Base allow him to lease the space to a private company that can export just about anything except "nuclear waste, illegal immigrants, weapons and drugs." 

"It's not for me to determine," Tagami said. "We are entitled to have a bulk commodities terminal, and beyond that it's up to the market to determine what we export." 

Tagami said environmentalists opposed to coal exports are focusing on the wrong thing. 

"If people took a hard look at the household products they have under their sinks, they would freak out if they saw things like ammonia and chlorine in 55-gallon drums or in a rail tank car," he said. 

Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said she opposed the export of coal from Oakland. While on the City Council last May, she voted in favor of a resolution opposing the transportation of coal and crude oil through the city. 

"Obviously, we're going to work with our business partners to try and reach a mutually acceptable way of moving forward," Schaaf said. "This is a very important project for the city of Oakland, and this policy resolution is important also." 

Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, which is fighting expansion of coal mining rights on federal land in Utah, called the state's investment in the Oakland export terminal a "misguided last-ditch effort to keep their industry alive." 

"If we are serious about cutting carbon emissions, we have to do more than cap carbon at the smokestack," Nichols said. "We can't just ship it to someone else's backyard. That doesn't solve our climate problem. You factor in the carbon impact of shipping it by rail and then boating it oversees, and that's extremely energy intensive. It's the last thing we should be doing." 

In return for Utah's investment in Oakland, Utah will get a guarantee that it can send a certain amount of goods annually through the bulk shipping terminal. In addition to coal, Utah could also use it to export potash, limestone, salt and hay cubes. 

Utah is the country's 14th-largest coal producer in the United States with about 16 million tons each year. Coal mines in Utah and across the country are facing a bleak future if they don't find international markets, as domestic power plants switch over to natural gas or close because of upcoming federal regulations. 

"We're seeing power plants switching over to natural gas or closing because pollution control for coal-fired plants is too expensive," said Dave Tabet, energy and program manager for the Utah Geological Survey. "It was always a hope there would be a market in Asia because there is tremendous demand over there." 

Of the 16 million tons of coal produced in Utah each year, only about 1 million tons is currently exported internationally, Tabet said. Those exports currently go through the Port of Stockton, a privately owned port in Richmond called Levin-Richmond Terminal Corporation and through the Port of Long Beach, he said. 

The Levin-Richmond Terminal in Richmond currently exports 1.2 million tons of coal a year from Colorado and Utah, a spokeswoman said. 

In Utah, the Community Impact Fund Board, under the state's Department of Housing and Community Development, approved the investment with no written reports or studies, just the oral testimony of officials in the four counties requesting the money. County representatives told the board the money needed to be approved quickly with a June deadline to sign agreements with Terminal Logistics Solutions. 

Jerry Bridges, president of Terminal Logistics Solutions, said the deal with Utah is still being negotiated. He said any product moved into the facility will be covered, so if it's coal there won't be coal dust blowing around from Utah to Oakland in open railroad cars. 

"None of it will ever see the light of day," Bridges said. "I'm not in the business of defending coal, I'm just saying if coal is a commodity that we allow through this facility, it's the cleanest coal available in the world marketplace. We want to make this terminal the most efficient, the most environmentally friendly one there is, so we don't get sideways with the environmental community. We want to make money, but we want to minimize the impacts on the environment." 

Follow Doug Oakley on Twitter at www.twitter.com/douglasoakley

Poll: Parents Clueless about New School Tests

By Doug Oakley 
Staff Writer
OAKLAND -- A majority of California parents have no clue their kids are taking new online tests this spring to measure what they've learned, according to a statewide Public Policy Institute of California poll released Wednesday. 

The telephone poll of 1,706 state residents earlier this month revealed that 55 percent of parents didn't know their elementary- and high school-age kids have been taking the Smarter Balanced tests, which ask students to write analytically, think critically and solve problems using a computer. 

The California Department of Education issued a statement responding to the poll that said, in part, "With any new endeavor, it takes time to get the word out, and so far the test has been given to fewer than one-third of the students who will take it this spring." 

The statement also said the department and school district officials are "working hard to inform parents about this new era of online testing, which helps learning in every school by giving teachers and parents a more accurate measure of student progress toward college and career readiness." 

The poll also found that about one-third of parents did not know anything about the new Common Core state standards, which kids started learning in the fall of 2014 in 48 states while 66 percent had heard of it. Another 2 percent didn't know enough to give an answer. The curriculum emphasizes evidence-based learning using lots of writing to get kids thinking critically so they can be more prepared for college. 

The online tests, offered for the first time this year, replace multiple choice tests students took in years past using a pencil to fill in bubbles on a piece of paper. The new tests are adaptable to how kids answer the questions. Students who do well on the questions are asked increasingly more difficult ones, while students who struggle with answers are asked fewer. 

As of Monday, 951,396 students in California already had taken at least one of the tests this year in English and math, according to the state Department of Education. About 3.2 million kids will take the tests this year. 

"It surprises me that so many parents don't know about the tests because all the kids in grades three through eight and in high school took the test last year as part of a state pilot program," said Debbi D'Angelo, director of evaluation, research and assessment at Berkeley Unified School District. "Here in Berkeley we've done a very thorough, almost overwhelming, job of educating parents about the Common Core and the new tests." 

In the poll, 55 percent said they had never heard of the Smarter Balanced tests, while 36 percent heard "a little" and 8 percent have heard "a lot." Because of rounding in data by the poll sponsors, the percentages do not add up to 100. 

Oakland school board Director Shanthi Gonzales said she worries students who don't have computers at home will struggle with the new online tests. 

"I feel like were just going to have to get through this first year," Gonzales said. "A lot of kids in my district don't have a computer at home, and they might not have enough exposure to them or be expert typists, especially the young kids. All of that is going to affect how this first round goes." 

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Unpoetic Justice: Emeryville Planning Official Boots City's Poet Laureate With Huge Rent Increase

By Doug Oakley
Staff Writer
EMERYVILLE -- If the story of rising rents and the exodus of artists from Bay Area communities could be told in verse, Emeryville's poet laureate has one for you. 

Appointed to the poetry post in 2013, Sarah Kobrinsky was forced to pack up her family and leave town recently when her landlord, who also happens to be a city planning commissioner, suddenly raised her rent 38 percent. 

But her housing trauma -- she, her artist husband and their 4-year-old son are now residents of cheaper digs in Point Richmond -- inspired a new poem Kobrinsky calls "Aftershock." 

In another time and place, 

we are better people. 

No one lies. The Earth 

never shakes. 

Somewhere else, 

we are stronger still -- 

When we say we are sorry, 

we honestly mean it. 

As an artist, Kobrinsky said she understands the Bay Area rental market benefits some at the expense of others. But she expected more from her landlord Kairee Tann, a city official who votes on development proposals that directly affect the housing market including single family homes and apartment buildings. 

Tann also is on the city's Housing Advisory and Appeals Board, which hears complaints about potential violations of the housing code. 

Kobrinsky's rent in Emeryville went from $1,300 to $1,800 a month for a 1 ½-bedroom unit. Even though she lived on the same lot as her landlord in a separate unit, she said when she was notified of the increase there was no conversation, just a certified letter. 

"It was just shocking because as a member of the planning commission, she clearly has a bias for landlords, as opposed to tenants," Kobrinsky said. "It felt really gross that it happened so suddenly. I would have understood if they tried to increase it incrementally or something. But we were essentially muscled out." 

Still, she plans to continue writing poems for Emeryville through the end of her two-year term as laureate, for which she is paid $750 a year. 

Since starting her term in 2013 she's composed verse for the ribbon cutting at Temescal Creek Park; oversees submissions for the Poetry in Motion program on the Emeryville commuter shuttle; conducts poetry workshops in Emeryville schools; the senior center and library; and reads at a minimum of four city events a year. She also maintains her own blog called Poet Laureate of E'ville. 

She will be reading Tuesday when the City Council introduces a proclamation celebrating National Poetry Month. 

Tann called the rent increase, in which she gave Kobrinsky 60 days notice to pay or leave, "standard operating procedure" and added that she and her husband were not "aware of any issue regarding the rent increase." Public records show she and her husband own properties in Emeryville, Berkeley and Santa Rosa. 

Emeryville Mayor Ruth Atkin said she is glad Kobrinsky will continue writing poems for the city, and she sympathizes with her. 

"It's terrible what happened to Sarah," Atkin said. "The rental market is completely out of control. The city is caught up in some macro economic conditions. These market influences can and do hurt people. When Sarah's situation came to light, we on the City Council decided to grapple with some kind of tenant protections. We're quite concerned about that." 

Atkin said rent control would be difficult in Emeryville because the Costa-Hawkins Rental Housing Act prohibits it on units built after 1995, and much of the city's housing stock was built after that. The city could, however, codify a process for landlord-tenant dispute resolution, Atkin said. 

All that is fine, Kobrinsky said, but it won't bring the poet laureate of Emeryville back to Emeryville. 

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