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Eureka Needs to Stand Up to its Playground Bully



Once again, Eureka City Schools (ECS) has created an uproar. This time, it has threatened litigation to wrest control of Academy of the Redwoods, a school that has been operating under the authority of Fortuna Union High School District. There's no strong reasoning for the sudden interest in the school except that it's within ECS' boundaries, just as it has been for 17 years. ECS allowed another district to oversee the college preparatory program until it was fully formed and successful, making it a safe financial asset to conquer.

It took a similar tactic in 2016 with Pacific View Charter School, which used to be part of the Loleta Union Elementary School District but, according to the California School Directory, now is run by ECS.

We teach our kids to play well with others but, as leaders, Eureka City Schools is not a great role model in that area. It has behaved more like the playground bully.

Just a few months ago, back in November, an inability to hold on to strong administrative team members was tied directly to leadership at Eureka City Schools. The departures inspired outrage in staff, students and the community, with walk-outs and a contentious special school board meeting. Following the meeting, however, the board closed the issue with a letter of support for Superintendent Fred Van Vleck. It did not include any direction to staff to address the underlying problems.

In May of 2022, the district proposed, and the board approved with a 4-1 vote, a development fee adding $4.79 per square foot for residential construction and $0.78 per square foot for commercial or industrial construction. With housing the single biggest issue in the region, these additional costs will translate to greater housing security issues for everyone, including student families, school district faculty and staff. The fees, which could have hampered new construction projects, have quietly disappeared without being implemented after some public threats of a lawsuit, but my understanding is they are still being pursued with the help of a hired consultant.

In January of 2022, after the South Bay Union School District superintendent moved to Eureka City Schools as an assistant superintendent, South Bay was temporarily taken under the wing of Eureka City Schools. While ECS would have been more than happy to make it a permanent "partnership," parents, staff and the South Bay School Board fought back and succeeded, keeping their autonomy.

In March of 2019, after the property had sat vacant for more than a decade, frustrated neighbors near Jacobs School in South Eureka banded together to put pressure on Eureka City Schools. They wanted ECS to address the blight and crime that was plaguing their neighborhood because of a lack of attention to the school campus. The property was finally abated, but still sits empty and undeveloped because the district's asking price is far above the appraised value.

The California School Board Association says a school board member's primary responsibility is to "ensure that school districts are responsive to the values, beliefs and priorities of their communities."

By avoiding transparency, pointing to outside threats and touting fiscal responsibility, ECS administration can control the narrative with the board, directing its members and not the other way around. This dynamic trumps community priorities.

Administration knows the board is the only way to change this trajectory. Besides writing the letter of support for the superintendent, the board also renewed his contract for four years. Unless Van Vleck does something clearly unethical or illegal, buying out his contract — the price of firing him — comes with a very expensive price tag. The more there are calls for his removal without result, the more the community becomes defeated when it doesn't happen. There needs to be a strategy that looks at the long-term landscape.

The superintendent's contract is due to renew in June of 2024 and the current board is the board that will likely be voting to extend it when it comes up. There are no opportunities to elect new school board members before the contract is up. (Two candidates will be up for re-election immediately following the contract renewal and three more will be up for election in 2026.)

Here are some thoughts about how to affect change in the district within the next six years:

It may sound counter-intuitive, but keep your kids in neighborhood schools. Eureka City Schools has amazing teachers, staff, programs and students. The district can better reflect the community when local children attend the schools. Students can flourish there, and active parents have more weight for making change. When people leave, it weakens the whole district, not just financially but by limiting parent support and advocacy.

Develop relationships with your school board members. Remember to reach out to them to let them know when you see something positive. That makes it easier for them to hear the negative feedback when needed.

Demand transparency. Advocate for school board meetings to be televised like other government meetings. Advocate for a reasonable public comment or agenda item comment timeframe. (For major issues, limiting comment to 30 minutes is a disservice for people who want to participate in the process.) Request board agendas be sent to you regularly to stay on top of district issues. You don't have to have an opinion about everything the board does, but you want to stay notified of decisions that may affect you, your student, your neighborhood or your community.

Organize and stay focused. As much as possible, advocate for what you want to see, not what you don't want to see. Be specific, pointing out initiatives and policies that can be used at ECS. The South Eureka Neighborhood Association has made an impact on the Jacobs property by organizing, demonstrating that the public can make a difference.

For parents who live in the ECS district but have students attending other schools, create an "ex-pat parent group" to support the evolution of ECS. Organize and communicate about how to make Eureka City Schools more attractive to you as parents so future students can benefit from your experiences. If you live in Eureka, you benefit from a healthy school district, whether you have kids there or not.

Join music boosters, sports boosters or support one of the many multicultural, science or art clubs. When you donate directly to those groups, the district cannot dictate what happens with that money. You do not need to be affiliated with the school.

Same for joining the PTA. You can join almost every PTA in the district for somewhere between $50 and $70 total. A strong PTA provides stronger advocacy for parent voices. No school affiliation necessary.

Start thinking now about running for a seat on the school board. It makes such a huge impact, not just for the schools but the whole community. For those who can't run, help with a campaign or, at least, learn about the people who are asking to serve in that role.

I am not writing this because I dislike Eureka City Schools. I love Eureka City Schools. More importantly, I love Eureka. We will never be our best as a city until Eureka City Schools reflects the values of our community.

Susan Seaman (she/her) served as Eureka's mayor from 2018 through 2022.


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