Are school closures the answer?
The fifth meeting of the Chester Area District Advisory or “7-11” Committee convened Wednesday, Feb. 15, at 6 p.m. in the library at Chester Junior-Senior High School. Attendance for the meeting easily exceeded that of all prior meetings, and led to a lengthy public comment period. The comments made not only highlighted the confusion and frustration expressed at the public forum meeting Sunday, but those feelings from every preceding meeting as well.
The Chester area faces several possible impacts from the proposed school closures and consolidations. The most imminent impact would be the possible laying off of Chester teachers in order to accommodate teachers with higher seniority that might be relocated from Greenville High School, should it be closed.
To the Chester 7-11 Committee members: “Are there any teeth in your recommendation?” Wendi Durkin, Chester area Realtor and mother
The second impact facing Chester area schools wouldn’t be slated until the 2013-14 school year at the earliest, and would be the closure and relocation of Chester Elementary School to the Chester Junior-Senior High School campus. This move would create a K – 12 school in Chester and also facilitate the loss of the Chester Elementary School property.
The possible loss of Chester Elementary School, both as an educational center and the property, prompted one audience member to ask, “Why would the district spend grant money on upgrading the kitchen at Chester Elementary if they are just going to close the site in a couple of years?”
The question dovetailed into another regarding the $20,000 private donation received in November 2011 by Chester Elementary School for its playground fund. Someone asked how the gentleman who donated the money would feel about his gift going toward equipment that might never be used at the site.
“I doubt very much that he’d appreciate it,” answered audience member Wendy Cheli. It was Cheli that had told Kenneth Worsham, of Prattville, about the playground fund, prompting the seasonal resident to donate the large sum to the school.
Cheli also asked, echoing District 5 Supervisor John Kennedy’s sentiment from the Sunday, Feb. 12, public forum, if it was possible to ask Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) to not fund their reserve in light of the projected budget deficit. In the same breath she asked if it was possible to compare the projected budget to budgets from the past five years.
Chester Area 7-11 Committee Chairwoman Traci Holt answered that the past budgets had been requested, but not yet produced by the district. While PUSD has provided some of the data and documentation requested by the committee, the committee members say they need all of the data they’ve requested in order to make an informed recommendation. Without everything they’ve requested they cannot adequately perform the task with which they’ve been charged.
The failure of the district to provide requested data is not an exclusive issue of the Chester Area 7-11 Committee. Sue Weber, a member of the Indian Valley 7-11 Committee, said that the district has also failed to meet their committee’s deadline for providing requested documents.
Narrowing the focus to the Chester area, local Realtor Wendi Durkin said that the Lake Almanor Basin provides, per capita, a larger portion of the property taxes that fund the county schools than other communities. This owes to the high dollar properties situated around Lake Almanor, and isn’t meant as a knock against the other communities.
Taken a step further, if the proposed phase two consolidation of Chester area schools occurs, it could further affect the property values in and around the Basin. This in turn could bring the district even closer to a Revenue Limit situation, meaning that the property taxes alone would no longer be sufficient to pay for education within the county.
Later in the public comment period Durkin asked of the committee, “Are there any teeth in your recommendation?” Put another way, Durkin wanted to know if the committee’s recommendation would be listened to or ignored.
Holt replied, “We hope that there are (teeth in our recommendation).”
At its Feb. 1 meeting, the Chester Area 7-11 Committee formed four subcommittees tasked with investigating four specific areas of concern.
The Communication Subcommittee reported at the Feb. 15 meeting that it had received nearly 200 responses to its survey. The survey had been posted online and distributed in hard copy. According to subcommittee member Kacie Holland, the most telling statistic garnered from the surveys thus far concerned a possible tax initiative.
According to the data gathered in the survey, 93 percent of respondents would approve a tax initiative that raised property taxes provided that the money went directly to the schools.
The surveys are still open, with the subcommittee wanting to have hard copies turned in by Wednesday, Feb. 22, so that they can begin to crunch the numbers.
The Economic Impact Subcommittee has taken to the streets, visiting areas businesses to gauge what impact, if any, business owners foresee in the event of the proposed school closures and consolidations.
According to subcommittee member Kathy Todd, most businesses could see an impact starting with the proposed phase two consolidation of Chester to a single location, but especially in the event of the possible phase three closure of all outlying high schools, Chester included.
Many of the audience members identified themselves as local business owners, and all in attendance said that such changes would be disastrous to their businesses.
Todd reiterated that not all business owners felt that the closures and consolidations would affect their businesses. The statement elicited colorful responses of disbelief from the attending business owners.
The Facilities Subcommittee reported that it had continued its investigation into the two school sites in Chester, including the discrepancies between the Facility Advisory Committee report and the Facility-Budget Study prepared by PUSD administration. In addition, however, the committee reported on a larger trend at the state level regarding consolidations.
According to Facilities Subcommittee member Gina Pixler, there is a push at the state level to consolidate small school districts into larger districts. This, she explains, is why part of the recommendation in the Facilities-Budget Study was for Chester area committee members to open dialogue with Westwood Unified School District.
The push, she said, is for larger school districts, with larger schools, because the two scenarios cost the state less money.
In the report by the Budget Subcommittee, Wesley Maston pointed out several line items in the first interim budget that the committee found odd considering the projected budget deficit.
The first, he noted, harkens back to both Kennedy and Cheli’s comment. Under Interfund Transfers Out, object code 7612 shows $846,351 being transferred to the Special Reserve fund. Under the same section, code 7619, listed as other authorized Interfund Transfers Out, shows an additional $542,796 being moved out of the general fund.
The second object code, 7619, did not specify to what fund or expense the money was transferred, simply listing it as “other.”
The second area of concern that Maston pointed to came under the Services and Other Operating Expenditures. Object code 5800 listed over $2.6 million in expenditures for professional/consulting services and operating expenditures. With such a large expenditure the subcommittee expressed concern about the code not being broken down into line items.
Also under the same section, the subcommittee expressed concern over object code 5200, Travel and Conferences, which was budgeted at $206,076, but was projected to go over budget according to the first interim report.
The Budget Subcommittee concerns tie in with the concerns voiced by the entire 7-11 Committee, that the data they have been given is incomplete. It also alludes to the possibility that budget cuts could be made to mitigate the projected deficit, rather than school closures and/or consolidations.