City council moves forward on Richmond Promise program

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After a long debate Tuesday night, the Richmond City Council approved an outline for a $35 million college scholarship program but left some big questions unanswered, including how eligibility will be decided and how much money students might expect to receive.

Mayor Tom Butt said the council would address those items in early October, when a final “strategic action plan” for the scholarship program, known as the “Richmond Promise,” will be reviewed. The program is financed by a grant from Chevron Corp.

For the second week in a row, councilmembers Tuesday heard from people urging them to extend the scholarship to students from charter and private schools as well as students from West Contra Costa Unified schools. Some held neon-colored signs in the council chambers, saying “Why not my child?,” “What happened to a promise for all?” and “Kids not Politics.”

Dana Mitchell, a pastor at the North Richmond Missionary Baptist Church and member of an ad hoc scholarship committee, urged councilmembers to follow the committee’s recommendation to open the promise program to all Richmond students.

“I believe that if you begin to separate them, and if you go with another plan that would bring in a divisive element … you then have families against families, and children against children, community against community,” Mitchell said.

Irma Loyola, a parent from Caliber Elementary, passed out papers in English and Spanish before the meeting, asking people to urge City Council members to include all students in the program.

A few speakers criticized the council for the late hour of the discussion. Many parents and students scheduled to speak had to leave before it was their turn at the microphone.

Olaniyi Solebo, a 12th grade government teacher at Leadership Public Schools in Richmond, was among those who managed to speak, after a long wait with about a dozen of his students.

“What political or justifiable reason could you have for excluding some students while helping to empower others?” Solebo told councilmembers. “You can stand with all the children of this city and empower them to pursue the future they have and want or you can add yet another injustice to the long list they have already suffered.”

Gloria Scoggins, president of an organization called “The BlackBoard of West Contra Costa,” said the city should create a timeline to provide benefits to students graduating in 2016.

Input from the West Contra Costa Unified School District, which includes Richmond, is vital, added Scottie Smith, vice president of The BlackBoard.

“The city is in no position to develop this program without the district support,” she said.

After hearing all public comments, Councilmember Nat Bates said all high school graduates in Richmond should be eligible for the scholarship. “I don’t understand how you can start making plans when you don’t know who is excluded and who is included,” he said.

The mayor said a motion to that effect, however, was “premature and inconsistent” as the council is scheduled to take that up later, when staff has information and data to discuss it.

Councilmember Gayle McLaughlin was not present at Tuesday’s meeting. All the rest of her colleagues voted on 12 policy recommendations for the final plan. Major items of debate concerned age and school-attendance requirements.

Vice Mayor Jael Myrick and Bates argued that having an age requirement could exclude students who were held back or joined the military after high school. The council voted to raise the age limit to 21 and exempt students going to college after serving in the military from the age limit.

Councilmember Eduardo Martinez said requiring good school attendance without accounting for absences for major medical emergencies or hospitalizations was unfair. The council ultimately voted that the program should not count major medical situations against students’ attendance records.

Myrick expressed concerns that requiring eligible students to participate in one extracurricular activity could unintentionally exclude those who don’t see college as an option. However, the majority of councilmembers voted to keep this requirement.

“This program at its best should be getting people who are not thinking about going to college to actually see that as a realistic opportunity for themselves,” Myrick said. “The more barriers like this that you put up, you’re actually helping those individuals to segregate themselves out.”

Final recommendations addressed managerial aspects of the program, including creating an administrative board to run the program and an advisory board that will hear petitions about any public issues raised about the scholarships. The five seats on the administrative board would be filled by representatives from City Hall, Chevron, education, business and philanthropy. The advisory board would have nine members, including representatives from the local community, local nonprofits, the California college and university systems and schools.

By the end of the discussion and voting, around 10:45pm, most members of the public had left. Councilmembers said they would address the issues of eligibility and award amount at a later city council meeting in early October, when they will also be presented with a final Richmond Promise Strategic Action Plan.

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