RICHMOND -- Chevron, West Contra Costa schools officials and Richmond businesses and nonprofits came together Tuesday to celebrate the oil giant's decision to invest $15.5 million in the community and the school district over the next five years.
The program, known as the Chevron Community Revitalization Initiative, will pump $10 million into business investment and job training and creation programs, with a focus on the poorest neighborhoods, including unincorporated North Richmond as well as the Iron Triangle and Atchison Village in Richmond.
It will also channel $5.5 million into West Contra Costa schools, particularly programs in science, technology, engineering and math, to help students prepare for college and careers in technology, according to the company, which operates a major oil refinery in the city that has long been a political lightning rod.
The money will come on top of Chevron's average annual investment of $5 million in West Contra Costa communities, said company spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie.
"We think we can contribute to creating jobs, and schools are fundamental to what we're trying to do," Chevron refinery General Manager Kory Judd told about 80 Richmond and West Contra Costa leaders who gathered Tuesday morning at the Community Greenspace Garden in Richmond's downtown.
A steering committee consisting of 33 city officials and business and school district leaders helped design the initiative over the past two years.
Chevron will sponsor a series of community town halls in the targeted neighborhoods beginning in November to help decide how the economic development money will be spent, said Chevron Community Engagement Manager Andrea Bailey.
The West Contra Costa school district will devote a significant piece of its money to founding community centers at its five high schools for instruction and tutoring in science and math and for in-service training for math teachers, said Philip Gonsalves, director of the mathematics center at Kennedy High School.
"These will be centers for the whole community to help people to think mathematically, not just learn to do math," Gonsalves said.
Notably absent from the gathering was Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin, who said she was upset that Chevron invited her to speak and then withdrew the invitation at the last moment.
Ritchie, the Chevron spokeswoman, said the company originally invited city officials to speak but changed its mind because of concerns about the length of the program. "The community wanted this to be about them and centered on the community and the program. This didn't have anything to do with the mayor..." she said in an email, adding that other City Council members were also told they would not be able to speak.
The often-contentious relationship between Richmond and the refinery reached a boiling point in August when the city sued the company for damages from the Aug. 6, 2012, refinery fire that sent more than 15,000 residents to the hospital complaining of illness.
McLaughlin also accepted an invitation from the Ecuadorean government in September to tour areas that were allegedly damaged by Texaco oil operations before that company was absorbed by Chevron in 2001.
"This will benefit many worthwhile causes in Richmond, but it doesn't help the fact that our children need clean air to breathe more than they need computers in the classroom," McLaughlin said in a Monday telephone interview.
However, Henry Clark, executive director of the West County Toxics Coalition, called the project "a great economic development initiative."
"North Richmond is my pet project, and we need (help) in North Richmond," Clark said. "We don't always agree with Chevron, but I agree with this."