WATSONVILLE—The Watsonville City Council on Tuesday will decide whether to grant a special use permit, a zoning change and a general plan amendment that would allow Ceiba College Preparatory Academy to remain at its Locust Street location permanently.
If the Council votes no, it could mean the closure of the school, which in 2013 moved into the former DHL shipping station at 215 Locust St., in an industrial zone of the city.
“That could mean the end of our school, this school year,” Principal Josh Ripp said.
The school opened in 2008 with 150 sixth- and seventh-grade students and has expanded to include 525 students in 6th through 12th grade.
Ripp says Ceiba would have nowhere to go if the vote falls through.
Charter schools in California can demand space from their local school districts under Proposition 39. But in a deal forged with Pajaro Valley Unified School District in 2013—under which the district co-signed a $2 million loan to help purchase the building—Ceiba gave up its Prop. 39 rights through the 2024-25 school year.
“Ceiba is going to explore all legal options available to us if the vote does not go our way,” Ripp says. “However, there is no alternative suitable location for a school in Watsonville.”
The Watsonville Planning Commission in April voted 3-2 in favor of the changes, but the vote failed because it needed a majority—at least 4 out of 7 members—to approve it.
With nearly a 99% graduation rate, Ripp says that nearly all graduates go to a two- or four-year college, and both parents and students say the school gives them an educational choice they have not found elsewhere.
But its placement at the confluence of industrial and residential zones has been troubling for some neighbors, who say the traffic at pickup and drop-off times—in addition to parking woes—is untenable.
“I tell people that’s the equivalent of a company that has 600 employees,” says Nick Bulaich, who owns property near the school.
Becky Clark, who has lived in the neighborhood for most of her life, says her driveway is often blocked by parents, and by students walking to and from school.
Complaints to the school, she said, have gone unheeded.
“The community would have loved the school, if it was a school that cares,” she said. “But they don’t care.”
Ripp says that traffic has been significantly reduced this year with remediation efforts such as improved traffic flow around the school, in addition to crosswalks, curb extensions and ADA accessible ramps along intersections, all measures he said will benefit the entire community.
“It would provide pedestrians who live there a more safe way to get around town,” Ripp says.
But Bulaich says that attempts by the school to remediate the traffic have fallen short, since the circumference of the school does not allow for the roughly 300 vehicles that come twice daily. Instead, many parents drop off and pick up their children in the outlying areas of the school.
Worse, parents have been picking up and dropping off along Highway 129—also known as Riverside Drive, a busy road populated by farm traffic and big rigs, says Marta Bulaich, Nick’s sister. As an example, she showed enlarged photos of young people exiting vehicles with giant trucks passing by feet away.
“I have this huge fear of kids getting hit and dying,” she says.
Ripp says that, beginning Feb. 21, school staff started telling parents not to use Riverside Drive, part of his school’s Safe Routes to School plan.
If the Council approves the zoning changes, however, the school plans to apply to the City and to CalTrans for an encroachment permit that would make that section of the highway a school zone, which would include placing high-visibility crosswalks along Locust, Walker and Menker streets, Ripp says.
Nick Bulaich points out that Ceiba moved into the building with the intention of it being temporary. The school’s plans to make it permanent, he said, came as a surprise.
“We’ve suffered for nine years,” he says. “We thought the clock would run out, and now all of a sudden we got walloped last year when we got the notice that they want to make it permanent.”
Ripp says that school officials have struggled for years to find a suitable site, to no avail.
Also troubling, Bulaich says, is the school’s apparent plans for expansion. Ceiba has purchased the property across the street—which was formerly owned by Chevron—with hopes of building a gymnasium.
Bulaich says the school’s limited parking is also a concern. With roughly 60 spots barely enough for its staff, the older students who drive to school must use neighboring streets.
Watsonville Principal Engineer Murray Fontes says that the City has identified several areas to improve as a condition of its permit, including having parents follow traffic patterns, and avoiding left turns into and out of the school. In addition, students are told to only use crosswalks.
Fontes said that the school can be considered a compatible use for the area, should the rezoning be approved from industrial to institutional.
“The approach I’ve taken is that the use exists,” Fontes says. “What can we do to ensure that it is compatible with the neighborhood that it’s in? I feel that this is the kind of community situation where the Council has to weigh what’s in the best interest and make that determination.”
If you go
What: The Watsonville City Council to decide on Ceiba College Preparatory Academy
Where: City Council Chambers, 275 Main St., Top Floor
When: Tuesday, Feb. 28 at 5:30pm.