I don't think anybody would condemn the idea of giving inner city/at risk kids a glimpse of nature and/or an introduction to a rural/agrarian lifestyle. Doing such is not the issue with the greater Philo/Anderson Valley community in their opposition to the nonprofit Pathways in Education Blackbird Farms remake of the Highland Ranch three miles above the town of Philo.
Obviously when I write I speak for myself, but I think it is fair to say that at cause for our collective alarm is the greed based, often invisible manipulation of truth, legality and propriety that pervades the John and Joan Hall family method of operation.
While we might have grumbled some during their first three years of operation we did not kick up a real stink until it was revealed in early 2016 that they had intended from the beginning to increase their occupancy from the permitted 36 people total occupancy to 292, thereby almost doubling Philo's population - and all for for-profit enterprise. The children and the nonprofit designation only providing a colorful and charming cover for the greed.
I will say for the most part the interns they hire are delightful, idealistic young adults who take great pleasure in helping to provide the 22 school age children with a unique for them 11 day country experience.
Two Sundays ago I went with my two grand children John and Marvel to the Shenoa swimming hole where for the first time I met four Blackbird Farm "interns" enjoying the blessings of the River. It was cordial and one of them and I actually had a very pleasant conversation about education and the childhood learning experience. So pleasant that we agreed that it would be nice to meet again sometime for further discussion.
As we were wrapping up another group of Blackbirders appeared and one somewhat harshly asked "Are you David Severn?" And then proceeded to ream me for my year old article on the Fall Festival held last November where I found ridiculous, in their words, the " …activities that showcase the unique character of Blackbird Farms." Here's what I wrote:
"After signing in and being given a colorful card inscribed, 'Blackbird Farm Fall Festival - Blackbird Farm is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating students about sustainable living, agriculture and livestock.' I was invited to visit 5 stations and receive stamps that would admit me to the S'mores station. Station one was ridiculous - a white horse smeared with various color paint standing patiently waiting for me to adorn it further from the palette of pastel paint and a brush made available for the task. No thank you. (Poor horse)
Next another painting exercise but at least not on a live animal. No thanks. The third station had a young lad attempt to transplant a broccoli start from one six-pack to another. He had obviously been given some instruction but couldn't quite make it happen without a college trained intern's help, there was just too darned much dirt in the second similar sized six-pack to accommodate the dirt from both. Next was a lamb with a sign "Kiss me" attended by a pretty young gal that could have been in high school but said she was an employee. I pondered briefly the importance of kissing sheep to sustainable living but again declined. By then I'd had enough and the draw of a S'more wasn't strong enough to have me search out the fifth station.
The reader can make up her own mind but if this was to be an introduction to Blackbird Farms 'educational' curriculum, my take is that it is pathetic."
I strongly stand by this sentiment today.
The young man, that took umbrage with my views claimed I had single handedly turned "all of the Valley" against Blackbird. When I suggested that he write up his version of the public presentation he claimed he didn't have the time.
But as I said before the children are not really the issue.
If you go to CorporationWiki you will find that John and Joan Hall along with daughter Jamie Donahue own collectively maybe 75 different businesses, half non-profit and half for-profit. Their corporate enterprises are in constant flux with some going inactive and others newly created. I suspect it is the old pea under the walnut shell trick played with piles of money and to fool government and private watchdogs.
In 2006 following an Extraordinary Audit called for by five CA counties the State Dept. of Justice sued the Halls for $57 million in over charges from their publicly funded charter school operations. At the time they had over 60 charter schools in California, half for-profit, half non-profit. In brief - in court: The State won. The Halls appealed and won. The State re-charged and won. The Halls re-appealed and just two weeks ago lost. So at present it is three for the State (that's us) and one for the Halls. There is a 60 day window for the Halls to yet again appeal. They probably will.
Also just three months ago the courts proclaimed that several of the Halls' charter schools were operating in violation of the law and were required to close. The problem being that once a charter school received authorization in a given county district the Halls would then inappropriately open satellite schools in other districts throughout that county. It appears that maybe as many as a third of the Halls' Options for Youth and Opportunities for Learning charter schools have been recently closed in response. We'll look into this a bit more.
Here in Mendocino County following our community uproar when we finally learned what the Halls were up to, the County at last got around to inspecting what was going on up on the hill and found 10 ongoing code violations. To this day some of these have been dealt with and others not.
That same Anderson Valley community response that got the inspectors on the job and kicked the Planning and Building Department into gear pressured the Halls into withdrawing their original Major Use Permit Application for 292 occupancy. But like their proclivity for appeal the Halls are tenacious and have re-applied for a Major Use Permit. The problem is that we, the public, will not be able to see what they are up to now until something like two or three weeks before the issue goes for approval before the Planning Commission.