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Protesters opposing Chevron's efforts to reduce its property taxes stage a rally prior to a meeting of the Contra Costa County Assessment Appeals Board in Martinez, Calif. Thursday, Dec. 15, 2011. (Kristopher Skinner/Staff)

Critics are calling out Chevron for touting its community contributions to Richmond in a national ad while fighting for a multimillion-dollar tax refund.

The corporation has been running an ad since November featuring a Richmond student manipulating a robot. In a split screen, a Chevron geologist talks about the corporation's support for science education.

The commercial references Chevron's $170,000 contribution to the Project Lead the Way program in West Contra Costa County schools, which emphasizes science and math skills that can lead to high-tech careers.

At the same time, the corporation is appealing Contra Costa County's property tax assessment on its Richmond refinery.

At stake is as much as $100 million in taxes Chevron says it overpaid from 2007 through 2009. If Chevron prevails with the Contra Costa Assessment Appeals Board as it did in an earlier appeal, the county, its cities, and school, fire, water and other special districts would have to pay back tens of millions of dollars.

"It's your typical Chevron PR," Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin said of the ad, which is titled "Science Rules" and is part of Chevron's "We Agree" corporate citizenship campaign.

"It is ironic that they're talking about a school program that they've given a paltry amount of money to, while at the same time their property tax appeal would have a huge impact on the lives of children in Richmond."

McLaughlin was among several dozen protesters who rallied in Martinez last week outside of administrative offices where Chevron representatives were meeting with the county's assessment appeals board.

The Richmond City Council and the West Contra Costa Unified School District both have asked the oil giant to drop its appeal, citing how devastating it would be for schools and the city to lose the money.

In this context, the ad comes across as ironic, school district trustee Antonio Medrano said at a dinner Chevron held to honor its newly minted 13-year-old star of its ad campaign.

"I look at that ad and I go, 'And they want a few million dollars if they win the case?' "

Medrano drew a distinction between Chevron's corporate leaders, who are seeking the refund, and local representatives, who he said have helped the school district through their support of programs like Project Lead the Way.

Chevron spokeswoman Melissa Ritchie said she would prefer to keep the tax appeal issue separate from the ad campaign.

"We don't want that to take away from this," she said at the celebratory dinner. "We do a lot of good work in the community."

Ritchie said Chevron appealed the assessment because it is important to confirm that its property taxes are fairly calculated.

Charles Ramsey, West Contra Costa school board president, said that the appeal could cost the district $1.7 million and would work against the good that Chevron does for Richmond's youth.

"They have to review this appeal and see if it's worth it," he said. "They're helping some kids on the one hand, but they're taking away vital services on the other."

Ramsey and McLaughlin both said they were happy that a Richmond student is getting to enjoy a national spotlight.

Richmond leaders aren't the only ones using Chevron's newest public relations campaign to draw attention to what they see as the corporation's failings.

In October, environmentalists and the prankster group The Yes Men created a fake ad in the style of the "We Agree" campaign addressing environmental issues in which Chevron is embroiled. Some media outlets were taken in and wrote about the prank ad as if it were real.

Contact Hannah Dreier at 510-262-2787. Follow her at Twitter.com/hannahdreier.

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The television ad is on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=DpP2mH6jSoI