EMERYVILLE -- State debt no longer hangs over the Emery school district. Ten years after it received a $1.3 million emergency loan to pay its bills, the tiny school system has cut its last check to the State Controller's Office, marking the official end of a decadelong state takeover and the mismanagement that triggered it.
"Big picture, this is huge," said Debbra Lindo, Emery's new superintendent. "We're now able to control our own destiny."
Emery Unified's troubles came to the surface in 2000, when former Superintendent J.L. Handy left the district deep in debt; he later pleaded no contest to felony charges of misappropriation of public funds for using his school district credit card for personal expenses. In 2001, the two-school district received a $1.3 million emergency loan -- and a state-appointed administrator.
Emery is one of eight districts in California -- including Oakland, West Contra Costa and Vallejo -- that have undergone a financial takeover. It's the fourth to repay its debt, an accomplishment that was celebrated Thursday at Emery Secondary School with balloons, speeches and a giant check.
"It's a much, much happier day to have the loan off the back of the district and off your mind," State Superintendent Tom Torlakson told the group.
West Contra Costa Unified hopes to have a similar celebration soon. It still owed the state $9.4 million as of July, according to the California Department of Education, but board members say they hope to repay it before the scheduled payoff date in 2018.
Oakland's first-graders will be seniors in high school by January 2023, when the district is slated to repay the rest of its $100 million loan. Vallejo schools, which received $60 million in loans, have an even later date: January 2024.
While many in Oakland viewed state takeover as punishment (and noted that its state-appointed administrators did not have backgrounds in finance), things played out differently in Emeryville, a small city that's home to the Bay Street shopping center, Pixar, Cliff Bar and high-tech startups. The speakers at Thursday's event praised state-appointed trustees Henry Der and John Quinn for their financial expertise, as well as the strong relationship the district formed with Emeryville businesses and the city as a result of the takeover. The district regained partial control in 2004.
"Sometimes it takes a crisis for a community to come together," Lindo said.
In addition to two parcel taxes, Emery voters approved a $95 million bond measure to build a new, joint-use facility at San Pablo Avenue and 47th Street. It will house both schools, playgrounds, playing fields, a library, and job-training and other services for students and residents. The Emeryville Center of Community Life, as the project is called, is slated to be completed during the 2015-16 school year, Lindo said.
Emeryville Mayor Nora Davis said less than 20 percent of local voters have school-age children but that they overwhelmingly approved the tax levies to support the schools.
Alameda County Superintendent Sheila Jordan recalled the dark days of Emery Unified. At the time, she said, some wondered if the district should just be absorbed into neighboring districts.
A decade later, its leaders have not only straightened out the school district's finances, they are trying to reinvent the whole system.
"It's not easy for these kind of things to happen," said Miguel Dwin, president of the Emery school board. "Because of the efforts of the city and the schools, this model has really become a national model for innovation."