Antioch Council unanimously approves Rocketship charter school plans

Rendering of a back side aerial view of the approved Rocketship school building and site on Cavallo Road in Antioch.

Also approves sale of Humphrey’s for new restaurant, creating of new Economic Development Director position

By Allen Payton

During another standing-room only meeting the Antioch City Council Tuesday night, took three actions that are expected to make major impacts on our community in the areas of education and economic development. The council unanimously approved the plans for a new $14.4 million privately owned, Rocketship public charter school, as well as the sale of the former Humphrey’s restaurant building and land to a private, local real estate investor for a new, upscale restaurant. Finally, they voted to create and fill a new position of Economic Development Director, like the city has had in the past, who will work to attract new businesses and jobs to Antioch and help grow our local economy.

A big turn out of supporters for the Rocketship charter school filled the council chambers on Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2017

Rocketship Charter School Plans Approved

The Rocketship elementary charter school item attracted the most people and speakers who attended Tuesday’s meeting and even enjoyed the new support of Antioch School Board Vice President Debra Vinson who was one of the two votes against the school, when it was approved 3-2 last November. (See related article)

Community Development Director Forrest Ebbs offered his thoughts during the staff report. “This is a very exciting project. It’s a new school…a rebirth,” he said. “This is the kind of project that doesn’t come along often enough…tear down something old and put up something new and exciting.”

“This project wasn’t without a couple concerns,” Ebbs explained. “The planning commission really stepped out and dealt with them head on. This represents a consensus among the applicant and the commission and I want to commend them for their work.” (See related article)

The new 600-student school is planned to be built at 1700 Cavallo Road just north of East 18th Street.

Currently it’s the site of the vacant East County Times’ office building which was built in 1965. Rocketship bought the building and the land, earlier this year.

Five approvals were needed by the council, staff explained, which included an Initial Study, Rezone from regional commercial to professional office, a Variance for a 6-foot tall iron fence, and a Use Permit for an elementary school.

The major concerns were safety and parking. In responsed, Rocketship developed a security plan which includes a security officer at the corner of Cavallo Road and East 18th Street in the mornings and after school as children are coming to and leaving school

Marie Gill, Regional Director for Rocketship provided the official proponents’ presentation during the public hearing.

Rocketship is a non-profit network of public schools and they operate 12 schools that educate over 6,000 students, she explained.

Their goal is “to eliminate the achievement gap which means eradicating disparities for students in underserved communities,” Gill continued. “Rocketship ranks in the top 10% across the state of California in math and English.”

She shared the school’s three pillars of personalized learning, developing talent in all team members to unleash potential, and the power of parents.

“Engaged parents are the core pillar of the Rocketship model” and that “over 500 families have submitted intention to enroll forms” as of Monday, Gill stated.

“The $14.4 million investment…will bring revitalization to an area that has seen little economic development for decades,” she continued.

Speaking of the students, Gill concluded her remarks by stating, “Their future starts tonight with your vote.”

It will be “the first net-zero energy charter school in the United States,” added Harrison Tucker, the director of the Rocketship real estate team.

Only One Speaker Opposed

One lady named Sue whose home is located in a nearby neighborhood spoke against the school’s plans.

“I’m really not speaking against,” she said. “I understand how we need more schools of every grade.”

“You sure didn’t talk to all the neighbors on the hill above…” Sue continued. “All of my neighbors are against this. Because it all sounds really, really good. If they can get that much building in that much area that they showed up here I’ll be really surprised.”

“After 10 o’clock at night there’s always cars doing wheelies…on Cavallo,” she stated. “The wall next to the pizza parlor has become the hangout for riff raff. I’m really concerned you’re giving them people to get their next supply.”

“I live on Noia right above. I’m not sure what kind of noise studies you’ve done. But that’s a lot of kids in one space,” Sue continued. “On the other side of 18th Street there’s shootings. I’m really offended that you call it a run-down neighborhood.

“We’ve been writing letters trying to keep people from turning our street from becoming a ghetto,” she said. “When we call…we can’t get anyone to come out and do anything. What are you going to do when you call…and a student is run over? You really need to think about this.”

15 Speakers in Favor

Regular council attendee Nancy Fernandez was the first speaker to express support for the Rocketship project.

“As a resident of Antioch for 50 years I’ve watched neighborhoods become victim to squalor and neglect. The Cavallo neighborhood is one of them,” she said. “This is our 14.4 million chance…to breathe new life” into that neighborhood. “Please put the children and Antioch neighborhoods first.”

Her husband Marty Fernandez, who also attends nearly all council meetings with Nancy challenged the council with a statement and a question.

“Rocketship is coming into Antioch with a $14 million investment,” he said. “Do you see anyone else coming into Antioch to invest?”

“We are counting on those kids for our future. Not just Social Security but for our country,” Marty Fernandez continued. “Something good for the city other than a Taco Bell,” to laughter from the audience.

William Wallace rebutted the speaker in opposition.

“I live on the street right behind and Sue is my neighbor,” he said. “When the newspaper company was there, there was a lot of noise, I can tell you.

“My neighborhood is one of the hidden treasures of Antioch. It’s an old school neighborhood” Wallace continued. “This project will definitely affect me and my neighbors more than anyone else. It will be located directly behind my house. Traffic and privacy. Even with these issues I’m 1000% behind this school at this location.”

“Many of us feel we live in the forgotten dumping ground of the city,” he shared. “This will bring increased property values…legitimate businesses. This is the biggest investment this area has seen in decades. We need this investment in this neighborhood.”

“The Rocketship people are going to be great neighbors….it will be a good project. The school is a perfect match for this community…for this area to clean it up. This is a one-time opportunity,” Wallace concluded.

Speaker Rebecca Garcia shared “from a real estate perspective…about quality schools” and “buying a home near schools with high test scores.”

“When it comes to resell values…investment in high quality schools pays off,” she said. “To the buyer there is stability in home prices. There’s saving from costly private school education.”

Contra Costa County Board of Education Trustee Jeff Belle spoke next.

“Speaking as a private citizen, nevertheless I’m the Vice Chair of the CCCBOE and the lead oversight of charter schools of which we have 27 in our county,” he said. “We’re here to perpetuate quality education in our community. We need to move Antioch in the right direction. I believe Rocketship is a step in that right direction.”

The next speaker was former Antioch School Board Trustee Fernando Navarro who was one of the three who voted in favor of the Rocketship school, last year.

“My last vote was the charter school vote…I voted with a clean conscience,” he said. “I know you’re under pressure. Vote your conscience. Self-preservation be damned.”

Walter Ruehlig, the current President of the Antioch School Board but speaking as a private citizen said, “Rocketship was going to be approved after all. We can either work with them…or work against them.”

“The Antioch School Board, Planning Commission and Chamber of Commerce have all spoken,” Ruehlig continued. “White, black or brown…English speaking or foreign tongued, every American deserves choice and opportunity.”

“As for competition, should we have not built Dozier-Libbey because Deer Valley is next door?” he asked. “I for one am not pro-charter or anti-charter. I am pro-education, pro-educational choice, pro-parent and pro-student.”

Ruehlig waxed poetic and said his desire was for the students to “star in a dream of equal opportunity and they play out their complete, God-given opportunity.”

Jose Navarette, Senior Pastor of Templo Santo, which is offering their parking lot as overflow parking for the school’s after-hours events and activities said “I support and endorse Rocketship.”

“We moved to East 18th Street with one goal in mind. To be part of the solution,” he stated. “We’ve been there for about a year. We’ve worked with the mayor. We’re excited about them…they will benefit this area. We are working with them…to provide parking space.”

Jessica Duran whose five-year-old daughter attends a Rocketship school in Concord, said “As a parent I want the best possible education for my child. I was surprised and scared about the school rating that my daughter was going to attend. As a low-income family we can’t afford private school. I found Rocketship online and I found their test scores are very high.’ “She really loves Rocketship. She’s making great progress….doing much better in math,” Duran shared. “Why don’t we give them a chance to build right here in Antioch?”

Natalie Lebron whose daughter also attends the Rocketship school in Concord said, “You’re going to support a dream for each one of them (the students).”

Tom McNell, a 26-year resident of Antioch shared his perspective.

“I’ve sadly witnessed families sacrifice their time to travel out of town to get their children a quality education,” he stated. “Worse, I’ve seen people move out of town and businesses not come to town…due to the quality of education.”

He quoted Chamber CEO Richard Pagano. “The facility proposed by Rocketship…is expected to spark revitalization” in the Cavallo area.

Debra Allen, who is both a BART Director and owns East County Glass said, “I ask on behalf of the hard-working parents and their children of this community to adopt the Rocketship resolution.”

Angel Luevano who is partner in an after tutoring program known as Math Intensive said, “This school is the best thing that can happen for Antioch and the building on Cavallo is the best thing that can happen for Antioch.”

“Argentina (his wife) and I have been residents here for 17 years,” he shared. “I’ve been a civil rights advocate…since 1968 and an advocate for quality education and a labor advocate. I have to say we have the best of everything coming together. Our kids really, really need this.

“Rocketship is going to bridge the achievement gap,” Luevano added. “The entire city is going to benefit.”

Randolph Hopkins spoke next saying, “I don’t really know anything about it. I’m an investor in the neighborhood.across the street. I try to provide the best… I just put $14,000 into a roof on a property. I hope you guys give these guys the opportunity.”

“When I see things going on that are wrong I call the police. I say we got to do better,” he added.

Dr. Lamont Francies, pastor of Delta Bay Church of Christ in Antioch shared his prepared remarks.

“Tonight, the city of Antioch has a choice to embark on a new path of success,” he stated. “Tonight, is not the time for the blame game. The whole time our children are grossly underperforming. Tonight, we must have independence from a system that is more interested in filling seats than filling minds. People have become more interested in saving schools than saving children.”

“Education is one of the few areas where you can underperform and keep your employment,” Francies complained. “Bad teachers can move on from one school to another.”

He spoke of the “soft bigotry of low-expectation. African Americans have always been advocates for choice in education since the days of slavery. We can’t afford to be on the wrong side of history.”

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase,” Francies said quoting the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Rocketship is now trying to bring hope to the ‘hood.’ Will Antioch get on the Rocketship…?”

An Antioch resident for 12 years and former candidate for Mayor, Gil Murillo spoke of opportunities.

“I want to bring forward the opportunity. It has been seen within this community. The opportunity is now with you. You have a blessed opportunity here,” he said. “By providing the approvals that are being requested here…you’re giving opportunities for students for generations to come…an opportunity provide children to succeed to move forward.”

Jennifer Alfonso, “a mother of eight children” in “a blended family” said “Half of my children attended public schools and it was a disaster. I removed the rest of my children from AUSD schools and enrolled them in private schools. Once we moved them they began to excel.”

“It wasn’t easy. It meant my husband had to work overtime,” she shared. “Every child should have access to a good education. Having a Rocketship school in our neighborhood will give them opportunity. Our children deserve to have this choice. We have to drive so far.”

Alfonso quoted the City’s Vision Statement of Antioch as “A Community that provides an opportunity to live, learn, work, worship, and play in a safe, stimulating and diverse community.”

“Are we going to let Cavallo stay the same forever or are we going to change it?” she asked. “I hope you sincerely vote for Rocketship tonight.”

Antioch School Board Vice President Debra Vinson was next, changing her position to being in favor of the new school.

“I was one of the members who voted no on Rocketship because I wanted to make sure there was collaboration and an understanding. I wanted an MOU,” she stated referring to a Memorandum of Understanding. “If charter schools are not allowed to be in a district they fail. I think it’s unheard of for any charter school to agree to an MOU after approval.”

“I was really surprised by the integrity by Rocketship,” Vinson continued. “Ms. Gill told me ‘we are going to do an MOU.’ I said, ‘really?’”

“I can’t tell you how to vote yay or nay, but in this day and age when organizations have integrity it’s refreshing and something to think about,” she concluded.

Matthew Hart, a local attorney and lifetime resident of Antioch, said “I went through Antioch schools and I can say I’m a success story. But when my daughter was in school we drove her to Walnut Creek.”

“The only choice before council tonight is whether we give them the opportunity to put those children in a $14 million facility or a substandard facility,” he said. “Let’s give our kids a better opportunity. Give the parents a better choice. The choice I had. They should have it, too.”

Richard Pagano, CEO of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce said he was there to “speak on the potential revitalization of an area of town that a $14 million Rocketship can bring. It will be the first of its kind in Antioch.”

“Where do you send your kids to school? Are you happy with Antioch schools? Or do you pay to send them to private schools?” he asked. “These parents and kids deserve the choice. A no vote isn’t just a no vote for Rocketship. We have other businesses that are watching. A not vote may determine whether they come to Antioch or go to another community. Your vote tonight will set a precedent. This is a zoning argument.”

Regardless of how you vote Rocketship is coming to Antioch,” Pagano stated. “Your vote tonight brings increased property values. Your constituents have invested heavily in this part of town. Unless you have a plan that will bring a $14 million investment…I suggest you approve Rocketship.”

Pittsburg resident and regular council and school board meeting attendee Willie Mims was the final speaker, but had some questions and challenges for the project and wouldn’t take sides.

“I am not here to take any position one way or another. I have some concerns with the planning commission,” he said, then asking “49 parking spaces is sufficient…without a traffic study…how can you make a decision?”

“The planning commission recommended approval without off-site parking agreements,” Mims continued. “You’re talking about one-way traffic. How can you mitigate one-way traffic? You can’t.”

But, he concluded his remarks with “Good luck to Rocketship and hope they’re successful.”

Applicant’s 5-minute Rebuttal

Harrison Tucker responded to Mims concerns, stating “There was a traffic study done through the CEQA (state environmental) process. We have 35 full-time staff with 49 parking stalls. In addition, we have agreed to do a BART shuttle and ride-share. We have three off-site parking letters of interest.”

The main opponent named Sue also had a five-minute rebuttal, but she had left the meeting.

Council Members Deliberate and Decide

Council Member Tony Tiscareno was first to ask questions and share his thoughts.

“I have been the labor advocate of the council,” he stated. “We promote education. We offer and promote choices. I am a public school advocate. But at this particular point we aren’t here to litigate what agreement you have with the school district.”

He asked about the agreement and some type of an MOU.

Rocketship’s Gill responded, “it is a standard agreement with our authorizing districts, as a good gesture we like to have a good understanding. We invited the district to have that agreement.”

Tiscareno then asked about safety and security.

“A six-foot wrought iron fence provides a lot of security,” he said. “The surrounding areas will have security cameras. Can you tell me how many security cameras you’re looking at installing?”

“At every entrance and exit on the ground floor – four” cameras, was the response from Antioch Police Captain Tony Morefield.

Tiscareno referred to the “security guard before and after school,” and asked “to have a continued security force the entire school day.”

“We met with the police department and are in collaboration. The security guard was agreed to at the corner of E. 18th Street and Cavallo. So that’s what we agreed to with the police department,” Gill explained.

Tiscareno then mentioned “the shooting of a school in Northern California,” which occurred that same day. “So, I thought I’d ask that question,” he said.

Gill responded. “We have yet to have a lock down at any of our schools. Many of our schools are located in high-crime areas. A (Antioch police) captain toured our school in San Jose. None of our schools in California have a security guard.”

Tiscareno then asked Captain Tony Morefield about the security cameras already located at the intersection, “Have you seen a reduction of crime in that area?”

“At this point it’s too early to quantify a reduction. Our camera’s only been up for a few months,” Morefield explained. “Those are active cameras that we do make apprehensions off the hits on those cameras…so they have been a benefit.”

“Safety and security is a primary concern for all of us…I think we’re doing an excellent job of focusing on those area,” Tiscareno stated. “I also believe whether I have my personal opinion between public schools and charter schools, I do like that we have attention on an area that has been neglected for a long time. I’m curious to see how this plays out.”

“I want to see the city progress. I want to see parts of the city that are in need of a little TLC…to have their day,” he shared. “There’s something in sight here…we’re looking at something positive and I’m getting a little excited, here.”

Directed to Forrest Ebbs, Tiscareno asked “We’re looking at this as an entity coming into that area…are we being consistent and fair…when we’re looking at other businesses or entities?”

Ebbs responded, “Absolutely. We are considering this like any other application.”

Lori O – kudos

Council Member Monica Wilson asked about prioritizing hiring local labor and a Project Labor Agreement.

Ebbs responded, stating “Robert A. Bothman, they are a unionized contractor. We have directed our contractor on site to prioritize local labor.”

“So, you’re…not going to have a Project Labor Agreement?” Wilson asked.

“Correct,” Ebbs replied.

Mayor Sean Wright shared his thoughts and his own experience in school.

“In third grade I hated public school so much I acted like I was sick every day,” he stated. “My mother found me a charter school. It was all the way on the other side of town.”

“To the parents who are driving their kids all the way to Concord, congratulations. I look forward to providing that opportunity locally,” Wright said.

Mayor Pro Tem Lamar Thorpe was torn on the issue.

“Well I met with a lot of you and we’ve had very lively discussions,” he said with a chuckle. “I’ve appreciated a lot of those conversations. A lot of those revolved around whether public schools are good or bad and charter schools are good or bad. But we’re not here to decide that…and the options folks may or may not have.”

“I’m not necessarily a fan of charter schools” he said and sharing that he was concerned about “how this might impact our public schools.”

“But, this is about if this is the right location,” Thorpe explained.

He then shared about his own experience while attending school.

“In middle school I had a horrible experience,” Thorpe stated. “So my mom, with seven children, she was foster parent…she got a permit to take us out of LAUSD (Los Angeles Unified School District) and put us in Alhambra.”

“As a dad…I want the best education for my daughter,” he continued. “So, I decided to enroll her in Holy Rosary (Catholic School in Antioch). That’s because the public schools didn’t have the after-school programs that fit our lifestyle.”

“I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t afford that opportunity to other parents in Antioch,” Thorpe continued. “I know by saying that I’ve disappointed a lot of friends in public schools. Outside of education choice, 18th and Cavallo is a hot mess. The riff raff is going to go away from that corner because we’re going to invest in that area.”

“The reality is…the majority of this council lives in Southeast Antioch where we have better choices. It’s not going to change my opinion of how I feel about charter schools overall,” he said. “If I see Marty Fernandez and Nancy advocating for something I take it serious. This vote will be a vote for both of you for all the hard work you’re doing in this community,” Thorpe added.

Ogorchock made the motion to pass all five requirements needed for the Rocketship school to be approved and it was seconded by Thorpe.

Tiscareno asked to “make a comment prior to the vote,” feeling it necessary to explain his.

“Of the minority on this council who lives in Gentrytown…we need to be equal to all of our citizens in our community. I didn’t question the PLA stance on this issue. That was a negotiated agreement,” he stated. “A lot of us did come from the public school. My wife came from the Antioch public schools…it’s just unfortunate the school district doesn’t have the resources, and that’s the case across the country. We’re not anti-education. I just want to make people aware of this.”

“When I vote for this I may be angering some of my union friends out there. But I need to make sure we’re doing the right thing for our city and our kids. So, I will support the vote in favor of this” Tiscareno said to cheers from the audience.

Thorpe then took one major swipe at the school board.

“I’ve heard of some of our local schools are under-resourced,” he said. “We’re here because of a lack of political will. I want to send a mesasage to the Antioch School Board of Education. We need to get our elementary schools to be in tip top shape.” He then complained of “a lack of will to get things done.”

“On our end, on the city council end, we have been holding our end of the bargain,” he added. “Stop worrying about recalling people and get our schools fixed for the people of Antioch.”

The council vote was 5-0.

Rocketship Thanks Council

Following the meeting, Regional Director Marie Gill was thankful to the council.

“We are truly appreciative of the councilmembers who took careful, considerate view of the information in front of them and really listened to the voice of reason of Antioch,” she said. “It was very surprising and yet humbling.”

“We look forward to having everyone at the ribbon cutting,” Gill added.

11/17/17 UPDATE: Rocketship Explains Their Construction Financing

In response to questions and comments from the public on the Herald Facebook page about how the new school is paid for, Elise Randall Hill, Rocketship’s Manager of Marketing & Communication said, “there are no public dollars going in to the construction of the campus. We use bonds to finance construction, and then ADA money received per student will fund the lease obligation at the school once the campus is complete (like paying a rent).”


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Council meeting audience 11-14-17

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