Are there alternatives to school closures?
Based on comments made at the weekly Chester Area District Advisory or “7-11” Committee meeting, there has been a lot of confusion surrounding the possible closures and/or consolidations of schools in Plumas County.
At its Feb. 21 meeting, the Chester Area 7-11 Committee addressed, among other things, one topic that had caused a great deal of confusion since the committee first formed: Why haven’t options other than closing school sites been looked into? The short answer is that they have, though those options do not appear in the Facilities-Budget Study produced by the Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) administration.
In truth, the PUSD board of trustees has received two reports, the administration’s among them. The second report, produced by the Facilities Advisory Committee (FAC), included the possibility of school consolidations, but also looked at modernizing school sites, cost cutting and the possible sale of district property to generate revenue.
What is the FAC? The California Department of Education (CDE) has published a set of recommended procedures, called “best practices,” for the closure of a school. One of the recommendations in the “best practices” is the formation of the 7-11 committees; another is the formation of a FAC.
The FAC for Plumas County was comprised of community members, teachers and administrators. Their charge was to examine all of the district facilities and programs and make suggestions based on their findings for the best use of the facilities, given the fiscal circumstance of the district.
At the Feb. 21 meeting, the 7-11 Committee received a copy of the recommendations made by the FAC to PUSD. It should be noted that the FAC began its investigation of Plumas County school sites in 2010, and presented its findings to the PUSD board of trustees in December 2011. In a presentation, the FAC gave three recommendations to the PUSD board of trustees.
Recommendation No. 1 asked the board to adopt the three-phase model that the FAC had designed in regard to school consolidations and/or closures.
Recommendation No. 2 asked to board to recognize that the four communities in Plumas County (Portola, Quincy, Indian Valley and Chester) are in the first of the three phases of consolidation as outlined below.
Recommendation No. 3 asked the board to consider two consolidations for the 2012-13 school year. These two consolidations are consistent with the recommendation made by the administration, namely the consolidation of the two Indian Valley elementary schools, and also of the two Quincy elementary schools. In the same recommendation, the FAC asked the board to consider implementing cost cutting measures at Chester and Portola with the goal of keeping those schools in phase one.
In their recommendations, the FAC suggested the board adopt its three-phase model of school consolidation. Phase one, as laid out in the recommendation, is a “two-school” option. Put another way, phase one is an attempt to maintain one high school and one elementary school, with junior high students split between the two, in each community.
Phase one, as indicated in the FAC’s second recommendation, would be where all the communities begin the 2012-13 school year. This would keep each community intact, and would charge the district with finding ways to cut costs and expenses.
Phase two, which would only be triggered when the population declined to a point where the option would be economically advantageous, would be the consolidation of area schools to a single K – 12 school site. This would happen in each community as that community’s population dipped sufficiently to warrant it.
Phase three, which again would only be triggered in the event of a steep decline in the student population, and only after phase two had occurred, would have a central high school or schools, with students transported to and from school(s) by the district.
Kelly Furtado, a member of the FAC, was in attendance at the meeting Feb. 21 to discuss the differences between the FAC report and the document published by the administration. While the FAC also recommended the possible consolidation and closures of schools, it did not do so on an accelerated timeline nor without recognizing the need to start at the beginning and try to trim the budget before jumping right into closures.
Furtado brought up the CDE “best practices” regarding school closures and posed the question, “Why did the administration release their recommendation before the 7-11 committees had a chance to make theirs, when best practice is for the administration to make its recommendation last?”
She answered herself later in the meeting, postulating that perhaps the administration released its recommendation before the four 7-11 committees convened in order to steer them toward basing their recommendations on the Facilities-Budget Study and the path it would take the county schools.
This sentiment was echoed by Chairwoman Traci Holt, who recounted the committees’ very first meeting when they were given their charge, along with the aforementioned administration study, and a bare bones, one-page budget. Holt made it clear that the committee was more or less directed to only consider the recommendations in the administration’s study. The Chester 7-11 committee only received the FAC recommendation at the Feb. 21 meeting.
The Communications Subcommittee reported that between online and hard copy surveys, the Chester Area 7-11 Committee had received approximately 300 survey responses. Subcommittee member Kacie Holland added that she still had to make another trip to businesses to collect additional hard copies.
By far the largest response came in the form of online surveys, with well over 200 people responding in that manner. At the Feb. 21 meeting Holland read some preliminary results based solely on the online responses.
According to the online survey, 85 percent of respondents said that the Chester area having a high school that meets college entrance requirements is of paramount importance, and 75 percent of the same respondents said that they would refuse busing to a centralized high school in Quincy, should that situation ever arise.
Another telling statistic relayed by Holland was the overwhelming support of increasing the local sales tax in order to fund the schools. According to the preliminary results of the survey, 84 percent of respondents would support a sales tax increase provided the revenues generated funded the schools.
During the Facilities Subcommittee report, subcommittee member Gina Pixler reiterated that the board of trustees would have three recommendations to base their decision on when the time comes. She also added that with the knowledge the 7-11 committee had gained from the FAC report, she felt confident that there were steps that could be taken to keep the district viable without drastically altering the makeup of each of the four communities and their schools.
Pixler also reported that if the accelerated timeline, proposed in the administration’s recommendation, were to happen and Chester schools were consolidated to a K – 12 site, neither of the facilities could, at this time, handle the number of combined students.
Such a move, as proposed in the FAC report, would only occur after student populations dipped sufficiently to make it feasible. In the administration’s recommendation, the consolidation wouldn’t happen on a timeline based on student population, but on financial projections that may change. Pixler also added that the subcommittee was looking at what student levels would be needed to trigger a consolidation.
The Economic Impact Subcommittee gave its final report at the Feb. 21 meeting. In that report, Holland said that the majority of the businesses that she and fellow subcommittee member Kathy Todd had spoken to could see the effect a school closure in Chester could have on their business.
Without anything further to report or investigate, the subcommittee wrapped up. Holland and Todd will now focus their efforts on the 7-11 committee’s larger goal of formulating a recommendation for the PUSD board of trustees meeting March 28 in Greenville.
Last, the Budget Subcommittee reported that it had been investigating other school districts that might be in a similar situation. Subcommittee member Wesley Maston said he had found several school districts in similar circumstances, but the one that most resembled PUSD was Sierra Unified School District (SUSD), which is northeast of Clovis, in the Sierra foothills. That district, like PUSD, is geographically challenged and faces many of the same issues according to Maston.
While SUSD did close two school sites, an elementary and junior high school, Maston said it was that district’s refinancing of its debt that most surprised him. According to Maston, SUSD refinanced its debt load and in doing so saved an average of $700,000 a year.
This discovery, he continued, is pertinent to PUSD because the current budget allocates more than $150,000 per month for debt payments stemming from bond measures that generated funds for capital improvements at school sites. Maston wondered if there was a way to restructure or refinance the bond in order to reduce the district’s monthly and yearly payments.
The next Chester Area 7-11 Committee meeting will be held tonight, Feb. 29, at 6 p.m., in the Chester Junior-Senior High School cafeteria. The public is encouraged to attend this and all of the 7-11 meetings.
In addition, each of the four 7-11 committees (Portola, Indian Valley, Chester and Quincy) will hold a joint 7-11 committee meeting in Greenville Saturday, March 3, at 1:30 p.m. in the Greenville Elementary School cafeteria.
On the following day, Sunday, March 4, Plumas County District 3 Supervisor Sherrie Thrall, in conjunction with the Chester Area 7-11 Committee, will hold a townhall meeting at 2 p.m. in the Chester Memorial Hall. Again, the public is encouraged to attend and participate in the event.