February 8-14, 2006

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Keep Cope Alive

A last-ditch effort to save the Watsonville preschool turns into a bureaucratic community nightmare

By Bill Forman

It had all the makings of a latter-day Frank Capra movie, the kind where every time a bell rings, an angel gets their wings. All that was missing, it seemed, was the angel.

The evening started out with a measure of promise last Wednesday, Feb. 1. Some 200 Hispanic parents and their children showed up at Watsonville Community Hospital and stayed the course for a 3 1/2-hour meeting with state officials. Their goal was to save Cope Centro Familiar, a Watsonville preschool with a three-decade history, from being shut down by the State of California's Department of Education.

But the sad irony of the situation became increasingly apparent throughout the evening. The state was not questioning the value that Cope's bilingual program brings to the community--in fact, its representative spoke admiringly of Cope's teachers and educational videos.

Rather, it's the fact that Watsonville's largest preschool and, by extension, the state, were taken in by a fraudulent contractor back in 2001. Only a week before the meeting, William McQueen, who had been hired by Cope to build expanded facilities using state money, was sentenced to six months in jail and ordered to pay back nearly $700,000 in funds. But before Cope could celebrate the victory, the state stepped in and insisted that the missing funds be paid back immediately and in full, or else they would be closed for good.

Representing the state at the meeting was California Department of Education administrator Sharon Hawley (as well as Child Development consultant Kelley Sargeant, who was brought along as Hawley's "scribe"). A former educator herself, Hawley possesses a wan smile and doelike eyes that grew wide when she spoke of how the bilingual teachers in attendance were so important, so much like, she searched for the word: jewels.

And yet, somehow, in the face of what appeared to be an impossible quandary, everything she said seemed to come out wrong.

"That is my daughter back there with her teacher and I'm really upset," said one young mother, who words were interrupted by the onset of tears. "I don't want this to close down because she really, really loves her teachers, and I trust them with my daughters. I could have had free services somewhere else, but I chose pay because that's how much I love the teachers at the center, and she's just been going around hugging all of them."

Hawley looked in the direction the woman had pointed and her face lit up with recognition. "I think I know that teacher," said Hawley, emanating a folksy warmth. "That teacher doesn't know that I know her, but wasn't she in one of our videos?"

Both the mother and the teacher holding her daughter looked puzzled, until a different teacher in the vicinity stood up. "She was talking about her,' she said, pointing at her colleague and providing what turned out to be the evening's only laugh. "But there's just one thing I want to say: Cope is accredited, we've done three educational videos, don't close us down."

Glimmers of hope would also arise and dissipate whenever Hawley referred to the judgment against the contractor. "I was so happy to hear about that," she repeatedly remarked, only to deflate any expectations by going on to explain that, even though the state will still shut them down, this way the organization will be off the hook when it comes to repaying the state.

That provided little consolation for the crowd of concerned parents, many of whose remarks had to be translated by board members for Hawley and at least some of the handful of other non-Hispanics present in the room (including Cope's lawyer, an SEIU labor representative, two supporters from the Trinity Lutheran Church and this reporter).

Nor did Hawley's silver lining lighten the mood of current Cope executive director Cirila Ramirez, who inherited both the beloved program and the array of troubles that have come with it. Virtually silent throughout the evening, Ramirez sat with hands folded in front of her as board members, staff and parents sang the center's praises and offered emotional as well as pragmatic pleas.

A soft-spoken cannery worker in the front row, accompanied by his wife and two children, rose to speak of how his wife, a fieldworker, and he both work 10-to-12-hour shifts. They can only do this, he said, because of the fact that Cope stays open until 5:30.

But as the evening went on, the despair became more palpable. "What I feel as a parent," said one mother, "is that basically the state is saying: 'Who cares about kids? I want my money. I don't care what happens, I want my money and that's it. No ifs, ands or buts about it.' And as a parent and a worker who pays taxes, I think our children are entitled to keeping the center open. And I think the state is not being fair to a children."

Hawley insisted otherwise. "The state is concerned," she said. "We care about the children, we care about the parents, we care about the staff." And what's more, she explained, the state will help all of them.

The Catch-22, however, is that the state won't lift a finger to help until Cope calls it quits. Once that happens, she said, "the state doesn't just leave you hanging high and dry. We will begin to work with you on a transition plan and we would make sure that families can find an alternative provider."

Raising the image of the state "casting kids out on East Beach Street," Cope attorney Donald Schwartz argued that shutting the center down makes no sense. "We're making progress; this is not an emergency shutdown. You're talking about 250 families and approximately that many children, and to pull the rug out from under them in midsemester, I don't understand what urgency would necessitate that."

Schwartz then focused, however briefly, on the good news. "We have filed a civil suit against William McQueen," he said. "We have an agreement with the state that if we recover anything from the civil case, the state has a lien on what's recovered." Schwartz said that McQueen own six acres of land in Merced worth about $350,000. He believes the civil suit could yield an additional half-million.

Hawley also sympathized with but ultimately rejected arguments that previous administrators, who hired the unlicensed contractor and also accepted overpayments by the state, are no longer with Cope and that their successors should not be punished for their mistakes.

"I've been with the state for nine years," she said, "but only four years in my current position. So I feel that I also have inherited a problem that wasn't of my own making. I'm a human being, and I'm touched by all of the materials and information you've provided."

However, Hawley continued, apparently forgetting McQueen's restitution order, "without having the building, there isn't a way to serve more children, which would bring more income to the agency so that we could be paid back."

When later asked about the state taking the restitution order into account, Hawley was forced to fall back on the bureaucrat's oldest excuse. "It's not in my department," she said. "It sounds terrible--I'm a bureaucrat--but the billing for the money went out in September. Part of my job, and it's not my favorite part of the job, is to inform people, when these situations come up, how we have to go forward."

Hawley then alluded to an argument with Schwartz earlier in the evening over an "informal" discussion she'd had with someone at the Live Oak School District. Schwartz immediately insisted that the state is planning to have Live Oak take over Cope's funding slots, while Hawley insisted that the conversation had merely been about those slots which Live Oak already subcontracts from Cope.

"I've been very careful not to make any other contacts in the community, because I didn't know what was going to happen," said Hawley. "Maybe Mr. McQueen would have had a check he might have written to you, signed it, and we would be able to move forward. So it isn't until we have a formal notice from the agency that they're not able to fulfill their obligations that we in the department will make our next step. And I realize that puts families and staff in a difficult position not knowing what's going to happen, but we just don't know."

Hawley's answers were growing shorter and shorter, her response to comments testing her ability to create new variations on the mantra "I will take that message back with me." Meanwhile, Schwartz's arguments grew harsher and harsher.

"This is going to be political dynamite when the governor goes to be re-elected," insisted Schwartz, "because if the people who are represented here in this room aren't heard at the state level, I can't imagine how anybody can be re-elected as governor without the Hispanic vote and without the union vote. We're being attacked so that these slots can be taken over by--and I can say it because I'm one of them--a bunch of white honkies from out of Live Oak who are nonunion and who don't have the bilingual skills and cultural background to provide the services that are being provided now."

Schwartz asked if Hawley knew who Ron Dellums was. She said she didn't. He then went on to recount his memory of the California congressman and Cesar Chavez standing on the hood of a car with a megaphone at UC-Berkeley's Spraul Plaza, with Dellums telling folks around him that they were all "niggers" regardless of race because they were being oppressed. "We're in a cultural economic war that's being played out here," said Schwartz, "and I'm really bothered by it."

The lawyer went on to rail against the "Caucasian-controlled school board" of the Pajaro Valley School District for refusing to name a new high school after Chavez. By the end of the evening, Schwartz's comments had become so voluminous that they were untranslatable, and much of the audience had begun taking home kids who were out past their bedtime. Eventually, he aimed his anger directly at Hawley, accusing her of speaking with a "forked tongue" and wondering how she could "sit there with a straight face and say that a notice cutting off all your funding in 23 days is just informational." When Schwartz said she should be nominated for an Oscar, a board member interrupted to say it was getting late and time to wrap things up.

Hawley, of course, had lost her schoolmarm smile shortly into Schwartz's harangue, replacing it with a blank stare. But if anyone really got to her, it wasn't the lawyer, but a mother who'd asked Hawley if, as a person, she thought what the state was doing to them was fair.

Hawley looked at the woman and answered simply: "You're putting me in an unfair position."

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