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River Islands & Manteca Unified: Whats best?
River Islands Academy is a charter school operated in conjunction with the Banta School District. - photo by HIME ROMERO

Why is River Islands important to Manteca Unified?

The answer can be found in the 360 students from Manteca and Lathrop that fill 80 percent of the River Islands Academy desks.

The developer of the 11,000-home planned community that is just over the San Joaquin River from the Manteca Unified School District spared no expense in making sure River Islands Academy was designed and equipped for cutting edge education. It dovetails effectively into the smorgasbord of education opportunities Manteca Unified is moving toward to provide for its 23,000 students from academies designed to make students employable upon graduation to the $30 million digital initiative to put tablets into the hands of every student.

Manteca Unified is undertaking these initiatives within the framework of the district’ ability to finance them. They aren’t money generators assured of increasing funding from the State of California.

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An impending turf war on River Islands?

It is why what could become an impending turf war on River Islands puts Manteca Unified in a unique position among the other players, the Banta School District and Tracy Unified School District.

Cambay Group, the developer of River Islands, is seriously considering petitioning for a change.

The reasons include:

• certain moves by Tracy Unified that will send initial River Islands high school students farther away than originally promised.

• concerns that River Islands residents will eventually take over the Banta School District by sheer voting numbers.

• Manteca Unified being more in tune with the integrated planned community from water systems to schools that they are pursuing.

• splitting up a community is not a good idea 

River Islands will decide in the coming weeks whether to request the community be taken out of the Tracy and Banta districts and put it into the Manteca Unified School District. That will only happen if a county committee agrees it makes sense and is viable and if Manteca Unified will accept them.

What’s at stake is the education of 8,000 to 11,000 students that would live on River Islands at build-out.

So far, the response from Tracy and Banta is essentially “we had a deal.”

But is that deal what is best logically for the kids?

California, unfortunately, for years has put districts on a starvation diet for school funding. It has often turned the struggle for more money per day for average daily student attendance into a major all out war between districts. It is why many districts, for example including those involved in the River Islands situation don’t have warm and fuzzy feelings about the San Joaquin County Office of Education and the numerous specialized charter schools they are opening that are peeling off students from local students.

This has prompted some districts to let dollar signs trump what is best for students.

Add in the tendency of some districts to have fiefdom building mentality and the best education for students isn’t exactly the top priority. If it was, why do traditional districts often try to stop public charter schools, regardless of how effective their track records are?

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River Islands high school students now would go to West High

River Islands students, as negotiated by the Tracy district and the developer, were originally suppose to go to nearby Tracy High, just over 10 minutes away via I-5 and Eleventh Street. Now they will go much farther to West High with an extensive time on the freeway. The odds are many students 16 and older would drive adding relatively inexperienced drivers to the congested morning commute on I-205. It would be a long haul for those participating in after school activities.

Banta’s brass isn’t happy about the idea of parting company with River Islands. Maybe it’s because they’d have to get rid of an administrative position. It’s doubtful the people who reside in the Banta School District feel the same way.

Currently of the 200 students in the school, 100 are from the rural countryside the district encompasses and 100 from Tracy.

The parents of the kids from Tracy can’t vote in Banta elections. But future River Islands parents can. It wouldn’t take too long for River Islands to essentially take over the Banta School District board. That may be what administrators want so they can get a bigger staff but is it what the Banta community wants?

It makes sense from a taxpayer perspective to reduce administrative overhead as much as possible.

And it’s not as though River Islands would be leaving Tracy and Banta holding the bag. The developer has covered all of the costs involved in their relationships so far.

How would River Islands impact Manteca Unified especially since at build-out they will need a high school, six kindergarten through sixth grade campuses and one middle school based on the development plans?

The developer has mechanisms in place to pay for the local share of those schools. They put up $12.5 million of the $25 million needed to build River Islands Academy. The rest was the state’s share. And it was completed before the first home was built. That’s because the developer is covering the cost upfront, an advantage that a massive project with a holistic approach to growth can provide.

Initially, if a district switch happened, River Islands high school students would go to Lathrop High. A high school that is still in their community since River Islands is part of the City of Lathrop. They won’t go more than 10 miles away to campus in southwest Tracy.

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Avoiding the balkanization of Lathrop community

It would also avoid the balkanization of Lathrop. Schools are major community rallying points. Having two separate school districts on top of a river dividing the community creates the ingredients for two distinct Lathrops.

All of these concerns have played out in another section of Manteca Unified.

Years before the first dirt was turned in Weston Ranch, Manteca Unified tried to put in place a territory swap. The area where Weston Ranch is today would have gone to Stockton Unified in exchange for an area near Stockton Airport.

It was killed by Stockton Unified whose administrators were worried that property tax might one day bounce back to be a major source of local school funding.

In other words, the chance of getting more money over what was best for the kids killed the proposal.

Weston Ranch, in all honestly, is disconnected from the rest of Manteca Unified. The same is true of Bear Creek High in Stockton and the rest of Lodi Unified.

And it will also be true of River Islands and Tracy Unified.

At the end of the day, all public schools in California are part of a state-run system.

It is why it is insane that empire building should be more important than what is best for the students.