Ross Valley schools eye timeline for child care center transfer – Marin Independent Journal


Ross Valley School District came up with a plan this week to keep in place one of the only child care centers in Marin that serves low income families.

The district on Tuesday unveiled a timeline under which ownership of the Fairfax-San Anselmo Children’s Center could be transferred from the district to the child care operators by May.

“This timeline adds some stability and gives us an endpoint,” Shelley Hamilton, president of the district’s board of trustees, said at a meeting Tuesday. Hamilton also asked district staff to come back at the next meeting with a recommendation on how “to ensure the stability of the center occupancy at the site through this process.”

The timeline, which includes a monthslong review by a citizens committee to declare the center surplus property, was developed along with officials from the children’s center, located in Deer Park in Fairfax. Currently, the district owns the center property, and leases it to the children’s center.

“I think it’s a very reasonable timeline,” Heidi Tomsky, the center’s executive director, said Tuesday after the meeting.

A transfer of ownership to the center operators would have the joint benefit of relieving liability concerns for the district if a fire or other emergency happened, and also provide long-term occupancy guarantees for the dozens of center students, staff and their families.

Many of the center’s families have expressed fear, rage, stress and uncertainty at district board meetings for several months. That was after an attorney for the district advised trustees in May that they should give the center 60 days notice to vacate due to liability concerns.

Attorney Terry Tao’s advice, which the district officials did not follow, came after center officials in March asked for a four-year lease extension so that they could apply for grants to renovate the buildings. Their current lease is on a month-to-month basis. Tao said the district should decline the lease extension unless the center could come up with $8 million to renovate the property.

Instead, the district and the board of trustees formed a partnership with the center to seek a solution.

“I care about this program and I care about our schools,” trustee Ryan O’Neil said Tuesday. “I’m with this process and I’m available to answer questions.”

Hamilton and trustee Rachel Litwack also made public statements Tuesday in support of keeping the center intact and at the Deer Park location.

“I have heard of your feelings about being ‘othered,’ and ‘separated’” from the rest of the community, Hamilton said. “If you’re in anxiety and tension, I have heard that. The feelings are real.”

Hamilton said she was “confident” that the center situation will be resolved. At the same time, she said she understood the families’ concerns — especially the families of color who might not trust that a mostly White board of trustees would understand their feelings.

“I know you must look at the dais here and we don’t look like you,” Hamilton said. “I understand the fear and anxiety that may come from that.”

The facility is one of the only subsidized child care centers in Marin, allowing single parents or low-income families the ability to work while their children are supervised.

“My kids were 1 and 2 years old when we came to the center,” Jesse Estrada said Tuesday during public comment. “That was 13 years ago. Now, they have graduated and are in public schools.”

Estrada said he volunteered the with the center’s men’s group and did frequent construction and maintenance projects.

“I still love the teachers,” he said. “This place is very special to a lot of people.”

He wondered why the school district, as the facility’s owner and landlord, did not do any maintenance. Board members said later they were looking into historical records to see what provisions the past district administrations had made for such maintenance and repairs.

Tuesday’s presentations also included results of a fire risk assessment done by an East Bay consultant, Jeremy Cawn of Oakland-based Dudek. The assessment indicated serious deficiencies if the property were to be upgraded to current fire code requirements.

Deficiencies included insufficient access for fire equipment through the only entrance to the park off Porteous Avenue, inadequate “fire flow” water supply and too much brush and vegetation too close to the center buildings.

The center is currently considered legal non-conforming and has passed its annual fire inspections. The deficiencies would only need to be corrected if improvements were made, likely after the transfer of ownership took place — or sooner.

“My concern is for the safety and welfare of the center occupants,” O’Neil said. “The report we got is just about ‘here’s the condition, and here are the recommendations.’”

O’Neil said it “is going to take the whole community to work together” to upgrade the center.

“As to urgency, I don’t want to sit around and wait until something happens,” O”Neil said. “I feel optimistic and encouraged by all the interest from the community.”

Center officials agreed with trustees that the fire risk assessment was needed to gather facts and information.

“We just wanted to have a thorough assessment before we decide what to do with it,” Michael Calabrese, the center’s attorney, said Wednesday.

Tomsky said the center would likely rely on local fire officials for advice once the improvements were started.

Larry Bragman, a board member for Marin Municipal Water District, confirmed Wednesday that the water board has approved installation of an additional fire hydrant at the center property. The water district has an easement that runs through the park and alongside the center.

The hydrant will be installed at the end of the water district’s main pipe that comes to the edge of the center property line. It would add to the “fire flow”  — the term for a mix of water pressure and gallons of water per minute — from two other hydrants on the center property and a third hydrant at Meernaa Avenue at the edge of the park.

“We were wondering what we can do to improve the situation,” Bragman said. “I reached out to one of our engineers, and she came up with the idea.”

Bragman said Marin County fire Chief Jason Weber approved financing for the new hydrant out of a “fire flow fund” for special projects. Drawings have already been created, Bragman said.

“We’re going to move forward,” Bragman said. “It will be in our right of way, so we don’t have to wait.”

The hydrant is expected to arrive from the manufacturer in about two weeks, water district spokesperson Adriane Mertens said.

The proposed timeline for the transfer kicks off Sept. 21, when trustees are likely to approve formation of a legally required citizens committee to declare the 50-year-old center as surplus property.  The group is legally known as a “7-11 committee,” a reference to the range of number of members.

The 7-11 committee will deliberate through September and October and hold public hearings in November and December. In January, the committee will produce a report to the school district.

If the report confirms the center as surplus property, the district must offer it first as a transfer to various public entities, such as the town of Fairfax and county of Marin. The entities have 60 days, from about February to April, to accept or decline the transfer. If none of the other entities accepts the transfer, the district would then transfer the site to center operators in May.

To view the timeline, fire report and other documents presented Tuesday, go the district website at The documents are attached to the agenda for the Sept. 13 board of trustees meeting.

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