Lookout Update: Ceiba College Prep chipping away at Watsonville permit mandates

Ceiba College Preparatory Academy Principal Josh Ripp in his office at the Watsonville school.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In approving a special-use permit and changing zoning to allow Ceiba College Preparatory Academy to remain at its Locust Street location, the Watsonville City Council imposed 55 conditions for continued operation. Principal Josh Ripp says Ceiba has fully or partially complied with 44, including on safety and trash issues, even as a group of local residents is challenging the permit process.

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An update on Watsonville's Ceiba College Preparatory Academy

Almost two months after the Watsonville City Council approved a special permit for Ceiba College Preparatory Academy, the charter school is pushing ahead with efforts to meet a long list of conditions in order for it to continue operating in its current location.

The school, which predominantly serves immigrant families from Watsonville and nearby Pajaro, moved into a former DHL shipping facility at 215 Locust St. in 2013, initially as a temporary home. That year, it was granted a 10-year special-use permit with the idea that the school would find another location. But after years of searching for a location, Ceiba decided to seek approval to make the Locust Street facility permanent.

Some residents had come out against the school’s request for a special permit, citing insufficient parking, significant traffic issues during pickup and drop-off hours and litter in neighbors’ yards.

During a heated six-hour meeting Feb. 28, the Watsonville City Council approved the special-use permit and also changed the zone the school sits in from industrial to institutional, allowing Ceiba to remain at the location. The approval was finalized March 14.

Since then, principal Josh Ripp told Lookout on Wednesday, Ceiba has been working to comply with 55 different conditions imposed on the school by the city as part of the permit process for it to continue operating there.

Those conditions include making modifications to intersections to improve traffic safety and holding meetings with the business community. Of the 55 total conditions, the school has fully complied with 39 and has partially complied with five, including implementing a “safe routes to school plan,” maintaining its trash enclosure to prevent odor complaints and providing transit subsidies for Ceiba staff.

The remaining 11 conditions include pedestrian crossing upgrades, improving ramps and sidewalks, conducting a sewer inspection and installing a new metal roof on a trash enclosure.

Shortly after the Feb. 28 meeting, the school hosted a town hall with the school community to describe what happened at the city council meeting and what the school needs to do to keep its special permit. Ripp said that during the town hall, he emphasized traffic safety and school pickup and drop-off procedures. School officials and parents also had a discussion about what families think Ceiba should do with land the school purchased across the street.

Ripp said some students want it to be a gymnasium. “But a lot of parents said we can explore other options — maybe a parking lot, or a community garden,” said Ripp. “Right now we’re exploring all of our options and we really want to work with the community to develop a plan for the development of that site where everybody feels like they’re part of it.”

Ripp said there have been no complaints filed against the school since the permit approval was finalized on March 14. One complaint was made to the city council on the day of the permit approval meeting about a bus stopped on Riverside Drive picking up students, but he said that has been resolved. He said buses now pull into a neighbor’s property behind the school, then come down Riverside Drive and turn into a designated area.

But the school’s challenges aren’t over yet. Earlier this month, a group of residents who opposed the renewal of the special permit filed a petition with Santa Cruz County Superior Court challenging the Watsonville City Council’s approval.

Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville.
Ceiba College Preparatory Academy in Watsonville.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The petition was filed by Marta Bulaich and a group called Watsonville Environmental Safety Traffic Industrial Alliance (WESTIA). A case-management conference was scheduled for Aug. 7, when Judge Timothy Volkmann will review the case and decide if it can be resolved out of the courts or will continue in the court system.

Bulaich and the alliance — a group including nearby residents and property owners — are essentially asking the court to order the special permit and Ceiba’s projects be stopped on the grounds that the City of Watsonville did not conduct a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review of the project. They also ask that the judge order the city to conduct the CEQA review and then bring the project back for another zoning approval.

Ripp, in a letter to families about the petition, said the city council didn’t do a CEQA review because the project didn’t result in a change or expansion of an existing use.

He also told families that the petition would have no impact on Ceiba’s 2023-24 school year, which is scheduled to start Aug. 2.

Ripp said he was “a little bit surprised” about the petition, but the school’s 525 students, 60 staff and the community are moving forward with finishing off the school year and complying with the special permit conditions.

“Ceiba is eager to continue to work with the surrounding community to make sure that we’re a productive and positive member of that community,” he said.

In the midst of the school’s permit struggle, many of its families faced their own enormous challenges after the Pajaro River flooded March 11.

Like other schools in the Pajaro Valley Unified School District, Ceiba was affected by the Pajaro River levee breach that led to the evacuation of more than 2,000 Pajaro residents. Ripp said about 30 students who are Pajaro residents had to evacuate. Of those students, about 10 stayed at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds shelter, and several continue to stay there.

Ceiba provided new uniforms to the students affected by the flood and has worked to connect families to available recovery resources. Ripp said he knows of families who have lost their homes, their cars and their belongings, and added that it’s important to understand that the consequences of the flood on Ceiba families are widespread and long-lasting.

“They’re continuing to be impacted whether they were able to return to their house or not,” Ripp said. “The impact is long-term.”


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