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Frustration with Windrush Leadership Aired at Parents' Meeting

In response to the financial crisis at El Cerrito's Windrush School, a meeting Friday night of a number of parents, with some faculty and staff, focused on raising emergency funds to save the school and on grievances against the school leadership.

An ad hoc meeting Friday night of about 40 parents alarmed about the facing in El Cerrito featured deep frustration with the head of school, Ilana Kaufman, according to a parent who attended the gathering.

"There's a very strong feeling that her leadership style is one of the big reasons why the school is in the situation it is in," said the parent, who helped organize the meeting. She spoke to Patch after the gathering, which also included some faculty and staff members and which was held at the Berkeley Art Center. She asked not to be identified, saying it was "too sensitive" at this time for her to be named.

Parents and faculty were shocked to learn Tuesday night from the Windrush board of trustees that the 35-year-old school will have to close Oct. 28 if up to $900,000 is not raised by Oct. 7. The trustees said the school's enrollment drop between 2007 and now, from 259 students to 165, has meant that it cannot make the debt payments it owes on a $13 million bond.

The bond, which put up the school's property as collateral, paid for the three-year-old library/middle school building and refurbishing the gym. After several months of trying to renegotiate terms of the debt with the bondholder, the trustees were notified last week that the bondholders intend to seek foreclosure and seizure of school property, according to a letter from the trustees posted on the school's website Friday.

As parents mingled before the Friday night meeting, former Windrush parent Judith Wolff told Patch she supports "administrative changes." A notice for the meeting asked that the head of school and members of the administration not attend. Just before the meeting began, Patch also was asked not to attend for fear inhibiting members of the school community from engaging in open and frank discussion.

The notice said the meeting should emphasize financial matters, not personalities.

A major focus at the meeting was how to raise the $900,000 in pledges needed by the Oct. 7 deadline to keep the progressive education-oriented school open for the rest of the school year, said the parent who asked to remain anonymous.

"There's a lot of love for this school, and an incredible teaching staff," she said. "And we all want to keep the school open. ... Our kids are really thriving here, and we want the school to survive."

At the same time, the parent said, another major focus was "about how the current administration has played a very significant role in how we got where we are today, how we got in this mess." Several people, including some "very honest and angry and emotional teachers and staff," described "a culture of intimidation at the school" and an exodus of frustrated parents and talented employees in recent years, she said.

The criticism echoed several of the reader comments that continue to be added to the that broke the news of the crisis Wednesday. A few comments have been supportive of the school leadership and Kaufman.

Asked earlier Friday if she would like to respond to the commenters' criticisms of her performance, Kaufman said she didn't feel a need to respond in any news article that contained a fair and balanced representation of the comments and of the school's plight.

A letter from the board of trustees to the school community Wednesday linked the school's loss of students to "the recession and continuing economic challenges."

The parent who spoke to Patch after the Friday night meeting noted that a front-page San Francisco Chronicle article Friday about the Windrush crisis framed the story in a broader trend of private schools badly battered by the weak economy, but she said Windrush has "disproportionately suffered." "Our enrollment has dropped dramatically over the past few years, not just because of the economy but because of families leaving in frusration," she said.

Nina McDonald, vice chair of the school's board of trustees and a parent of two Windrush students, told Patch Wednesday that Windrush was hit extra hard because it was started by working families and continues to draw largely from families whose incomes are modest and thus less able to afford private school in harder economic times.

Also on Friday, as reported in , Windrush went into Chapter 11 bankruptcy to prevent the school being seized by the bondholders. It also announced that an anonymous donor pledged a dollar-for-dollar match, up to $250,000, for every dollar in donations raised beyond the initial $300,000 in emergency funds raised as of Friday afternoon.

Anyone seeking information about contributing to the fund-raising effort is asked to contact the school's director of development, Ann Root, at aroot@windrush.org or through the school's main number, 510-970-7580.

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Astrid Broberg October 02, 2011 at 04:55 PM
Oh well...there goes that idea
EC resident October 03, 2011 at 03:43 AM
Windrush accommodates 400 + maybe Portola should consider reducing their capacity- especially since it will only hold the 7th and 8th grade. Why build a whole new school?
EduFan October 03, 2011 at 07:02 AM
I like Astrid's idea, if only that it solves two problems with a potential solution. I hope for the survival of Windrush, but not at any cost. If there is a way to carry forward the mission of Windrush, separating the mission from the facility (if it can't support the facility), maybe moving the Windrush mission to another facility that it can afford (or keeping a part of the facility that it that it can afford), using the facility in another way that supports the community (education or another open minded idea), using the facility as a solution to the Portola middle school location problem, it's time to look for solutions now that the past is untenable. I think the past thinking of Windrush + Windrush campus is untenable, people need to get beyond that.
Valerie Snider October 03, 2011 at 07:16 AM
The current enrollment at Portola is about 450 students. Nearby DeJean Middle School is substantially under-enrolled.
Tom Chesterman October 03, 2011 at 10:21 PM
It seems like the Windrush mission was the first casualty, perhaps a few years ago, and the facility is the latest.

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