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Putting kids first: River Islands: A+ Banta Schools: F

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POSTED August 5, 2015 12:34 a.m.

What’s horribly wrong and what’s absolutely right about education in California can be found perhaps 100 or so yards from each other on River Islands at Lathrop.

It is on land that was once a place where government-blessed levees routinely failed to protect the land against an onslaught of water that now is virtually invincible against the ravages of nature thanks to a man who is arguably the anti-Donald Trump — Alan Chapman.

Chapman heads up Somerston Group. It is the privately held concern that is behind River Islands at Lathrop. The man has the patience of Job and the wisdom of Solomon. For more than 20 years he’s been shepherding a vision that is now coming to life on Stewart Tract that once yielded pumpkins and watermelons from soggy ground. He has taken no short cuts. He has done everything California environmentalists and bureaucrats have demanded of developers by planning an entire community from the ground up and not doing a piecemeal approach. Along the way he’s committed River Islands to do environmental restoration work along the banks of the San Joaquin River that is so extensive that it has amazingly given those with oversight conniptions because they don’t know how to deal with a proposal that essentially gives them things they never dreamed possible.

He assured River Islands would never meet the fate of New Orleans did during Katrina. He did so by following the rules but not the procedures of dozens of state and federal bureaucracies that demanded improved levee protection against floods but then threw every roadblock conceivable in his path making it next to impossible to gain the required permits.

Engineers on his dime poured over the rules and came up with a solution that didn’t require a single permit. In doing so they built “super levees” some 300 feet wide to create the best river flood protection in California if not the country. The cost was at least $70 million to essentially move dirt around and properly compact it.

He wrote out a check to secure water and wastewater capacity so that government agencies involved could plan and build what was needed for the future 10,800 homes plus employment center and town center.

He beat back global warming lawsuits.

Chapman, of course, has hired extremely capable people committed to the same goal of responsible development eyeing long range return. River Islands has yet to turn a profit, But based on past experiences— Dougherty Valley in the East Bay is one — Somerston’s patience and investments will pay off. Chapman is the exact opposite of fast return capitalism personalized by Trump.

Six months ago Chapman came up against his biggest opponent to date — the education bureaucracy. Somerston put up $12.5 million to match $12.5 million from the state to allow Banta School District to build the first school at River Islands without incurring any debt. It opened as a highly acclaimed and successful charter school that got big kudos from California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson. Banta School District returned the favor. They kicked the River Islands Technology Academy and its 450 students to the curb.

It was a classic example of what is wrong with California education. The decision wasn’t motivated by what’s best for kids and their education. Instead it was about building fiefdoms.

It all started when River Islands started looking at annexing to the Manteca Unified School District. Mind you Banta has never been out a cent for anything they’ve done with River Islands as Cambay Group reimbursed them for costs. It doesn’t matter that such a move would take years and may not have materialized. Nor does it mater it’s been taken off the table. Banta School District’s administrators and board was more concerned about protecting their fiefdom regardless of the damage to 450 students.

That left the charter school board — other than the two members placed on it by Banta School District — with a dilemma. They had built a strong and successful science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) program that had a solid staff and a whole lot of successful students and happy parents.

Chapman went to bat for 450 kids he had never met. He told his staff to build a school the River Island Technology Academy in time for the new school year.

It loomed as an impossible task. They ended up having less than three months to do what takes a California school district 18 months to build and years more to plan — creating a new campus.

The impossible has been done. Every teacher and administrator is still on staff. There are even more students — 565 plus a waiting list of more than 500. Only four students at the academy at the end of last school year won’t be there when school opens on Aug. 12 as they moved out of the area. That says a lot about the quality of the staff and school that Banta tossed out for purely political reasons.

It cost Somerston almost $8 million. That’s how committed Chapman is to education compared to Banta’s educrats.

Who knows, perhaps Chapman realizes the smarter move might be for River Islands to build permanent charter schools to assure future residents that their kids will have the best education possible. If a portable campus that doesn’t look temporary can be built in three months for $8 million, Chapman and his fellow visionaries might be able to build additional permanent charter schools for significantly less than $25 million.

Chapman is about solving problems in the best possible way. Too bad California educrats can’t all say the same thing.

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