Watsonville City Council could decide fate of Ceiba College Preparatory Academy charter school Tuesday

The Ceiba College Preparatory Academy entrance in a 2021 file photo.
The Ceiba College Preparatory Academy entrance in a 2021 file photo.
(Via City of Watsonville)

With a special-use permit set to expire in June, Watsonville city staff are recommending that the seven-member council change the zoning for the site on Locust Street near Riverside Drive from industrial to institutional and grant Ceiba a permit to continue to operate there.

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The future of a college preparatory charter school in Watsonville that primarily serves students from immigrant families will be decided by the city council at its regular Tuesday evening meeting.

Ceiba College Preparatory Academy, which serves 525 students grades 6 through 12 and employs 60 staff, is asking that the city council allow it to permanently stay in its current location — a former DHL shipping facility at 215 Locust St.

Founded in 2008, the charter school moved into the facility in 2013 initially on a temporary basis while it sought a permanent location. But because the city’s planning commission approved a 10-year special-use permit — set to expire June 4 — time is running out for the school to find a new home.

“We have juniors who are going to be entering their senior year who don’t know if they’re going to be able to finish their high school career here at Ceiba,” said principal Josh Ripp. “We have a 60-person staff, including 30 teachers who don’t know if they’re going to be able to work here next year — so continuing to push the decision down the road is having a big impact on students and the staff and all who benefit from this community.”

School officials say there are no other suitable locations for a school in Watsonville and so in 2021 they began seeking approval to make its home in the former shipping facility, located in an industrial zone, permanent. First, the property needs a zoning change from industrial to institutional. The school then needs a special-use permit.

The decision Tuesday by the seven-member city council could lead to several different outcomes for Ceiba, including allowing the school to stay permanently if it complies with a list of 52 conditions, rejecting the school’s request to stay and therefore potentially forcing it to close down in June, or allowing Ceiba to stay temporarily, according to city documents.

One of the conditions is submitting an encroachment permit to Caltrans because of the school’s proximity to Highway 129. With the permit, officials can establish a school zone on nearby Riverside Drive and upgrade sidewalks and signage.

City staff are recommending that the property be changed from industrial to institutional zoning and that Ceiba be granted a special-use permit to continue to operate on the site. Institutional zoning allows government entities like schools or government buildings to operate. However, councilmembers could instead direct the staff to come back to the city council with a recommendation to deny the school’s request, or defer a decision to a later date.

Watsonville city officials didn’t return requests for comment by the time of publication.

In their search for a permanent location, Ripp said school officials surveyed all of the 49 available properties that fall within the broad categories of what Ceiba needs. Those requirements include a property of around 2.3 acres to 2.5 acres with enough parking and outdoor recreation space in an area close to where students live. The site also has to have the correct zoning and fall within the boundaries of the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. The vast majority of the properties that fit the school’s criteria were in use or not available, he said.

After exhausting those options, school officials started to pursue making their current location permanent.

“After Ceiba had looked at all available properties in the area and realized there were no suitable alternative locations, our current location became really the only option for Ceiba to continue to operate as a school,” said Ripp.

Throughout the city’s public meetings on the topic, several community members expressed concerns and frustrations about the location of the school.

Some of the strongest opponents of the project include Nick and Anka Bulaich, nearby residents. In an April letter to the city’s planning commission, Anka Bulaich urged the city to reject the school’s request, citing insufficient parking, significant traffic issues during pickup and dropoff hours and litter in residents’ yards.

“I have resided in this neighborhood almost my entire life, and without a doubt, Ceiba’s operations have been the absolute worst neighbor we have had here,” Nick Bulaich wrote.

The city has proposed that the school implement several initiatives to reduce traffic and parked cars by, for example, a carpool program that matches teachers, parents and students who live near each other to encourage carpooling.

Anka Bulaich said the conditions of approval are “flawed” and won’t fix the issues.

The Bulaiches also argue that the city’s erroneous approval of the special-use permit in 2013 is another reason to reject the project. City documents show that the city’s planning commission failed to follow the correct procedures to grant the permit in 2013. For example, important information in a staff report was incorrect and one of the requirements of the special-use permit — that the property be rezoned — never happened. That process is currently being proposed.

No one appealed the 2013 decision within the required time frame and the current use isn’t illegal.

Ripp said Ceiba has fully complied with 38 of the city’s conditions to remain at the site permanently, partially complied with five and has yet to comply with the remaining nine conditions. Ripp said the school can’t complete those remaining nine until they get the city’s approval to remain in their location.

Among the conditions that require the school to first get a special-use permit is a requirement to upgrade sidewalks and ramps at several intersections to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act rules.

Ripp, who is in his seventh year as principal at Ceiba, said it’s been great working there. The vast majority of his students are from Watsonville, while some are from nearby Pajaro. Most are from immigrant families and will be the first in their families to attend four-year colleges.

“What makes charter schools unique is that everybody comes to the school with a mission in mind. Our mission here is to prepare our students for four-year colleges and universities,” Ripp said. “Staff knows that that’s the mission when they sign up to work here, and families and students who choose to attend the school are also buying into that mission.”

The school has made “substantial improvements” to the property to make it suitable as a learning environment, according to city documents. Ceiba added an 8,500-square-foot mezzanine, bathrooms, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning system, new gas service, fire sprinkler upgrades, classroom alterations and a new carport with solar panels. In May, the school purchased a property across the street for $56,000 to build a gymnasium.

Ripp says the school is in conversations with the site’s owner, Skip Ely, through representatives from Spinnaker Ventures LLC about possibly purchasing the property. He said if Ceiba is allowed to stay, the school could buy the $7.5 million property through bonds.

“Our entire community’s been waiting for over a year for this outcome, so we’re really hoping for a four-vote, a majority of yes to our rezoning,” he said. “If we achieve that outcome, then we’ll be able to continue to operate our school here next year and beyond.”

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