Education Lab

Smaller schools take bigger hits as budgets shrink

All California school districts are struggling with declining revenues. But small districts -- especially those with shrinking enrollments -- may close schools, cut after-school activities and merge to survive.

The state's funding woes -- which could get worse if voters in June don't agree to extend taxes -- are particularly challenging for smaller districts, which have fewer options for budget adjustments.

In Sierra Unified School District in northeast Fresno County, for example, trustees may close two K-3 elementary schools.

"These are very hard decisions," said Debra Pearson, executive director of the California Small School Districts Association in Sacramento. "This is the time you have to ... make sure it all goes back to enhance student learning -- and cut out everything else."

Districts that don't keep budgets under control risk insolvency and a state takeover, said Pearson, a former superintendent.

That's the prospect faced by the century-old Citrus-South Tule Elementary School District east of Porterville in the next two years unless more students enroll, said Norm Brown, the district's part-time superintendent.

He is a retired superintendent from the neighboring Springville Elementary School District.

Enrollment in the single-school district has slipped below 48.5 students, a threshold that results in reduced per-student funding from the state that could cost Citrus-South Tule more than $120,000. With an annual budget of $800,000 to $900,000, additional funding losses could be fatal.

In the past two years, Citrus-South Tule has tapped reserve funds to bridge budget gaps, Brown said.

"We had a good reserve, but it's just dwindled away," he said.

Districts looking to cut funds have considered sharing cafeteria or busing services with other districts, Pearson said.

Some districts may share a superintendent, said Walt Buster, co-director of the Central Valley Education Leadership Institute at Fresno State.

In eastern Madera County, Yosemite Unified School District in December began limiting interdistrict transfers because too many high school students wanted to attend Minarets High School in North Fork, which opened in 2009 in neighboring Chawanakee Unified School District.

The district recorded a net loss of 176 students this year, most to Minarets, said Steve Raupp, Yosemite's superintendent. Meanwhile, the district's enrollment over the last three years has dropped from 2,370 to about 1,800.

Faced with budget gaps and declining enrollments, Bass Lake Joint Unified School District last year opted to close two of its six schools, slicing $400,000 -- about 5% -- from its annual budget, which now totals $7.5 million, said Superintendent Glenn Reid.

The issues of declining enrollments and interdistrict transfers have triggered meetings to discuss adjusting the boundaries of eastern Madera County's four school districts, said county schools chief Cecilia Massetti.

The goal is to keep students close to home while ensuring school budgets are not slashed, she said.

The county reorganization committee could recommend merging the four Madera County foothill districts into one.

"The existing district configurations are not sustainable," said Steve Raupp, Yosemite Unified's superintendent.

Sierra Unified shares many of the same problems as Madera County's foothill schools. But Sierra's cost-cutting efforts are starting at the top.

Superintendent Michael Gardner announced two weeks ago that he will retire June 30, which will save the district money but likely lead to administrative shuffling, said board president John Maxwell.

Sierra needs to cut at least $1.6 million to balance next year's budget. And if Californians don't vote in June to extend taxes that Gov. Jerry Brown says are needed to maintain current levels of school funding, the district's cuts will grow to $2 million, Maxwell said.

The district's annual budget, which was $22 million in 2007, needs to be whittled to $14 million.

Sierra's goal is to preserve educational programs that produce student test scores ranking near the top in Fresno County, while preserving teaching positions, he said.

Cost-cutting options under consideration include establishing a four-day school week and eliminating school sports and Future Farmers of America programs, Maxwell said.

But the best apparent option, he said, would be to close the K-3 elementary schools in Auberry and near Tollhouse -- two older schools that have higher utility and maintenance costs.

If the schools close, the district would convert Foothill Middle School in Prather, which now holds grades 4-8, into a K-6 site, and Sierra High School into a grades 7-12 campus. Each school would have a principal, and one principal also would serve as superintendent, Maxwell said.

Sierra officials will visit Clovis Unified's education centers to examine how to educate students in grades 7-12 on the same campus but also maintain separation as needed.

"We have to evaluate what is most important for student achievement," Gardner said. "Sometimes economically, you are forced to do things you wouldn't ordinarily do."

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