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Advisory committee meets, discusses school closures

Jason Theobald
Staff Writer

On Wednesday, Jan. 26, the District Advisory Committee (DAC) for Chester area schools met for the first of its six weekly meetings. The DAC, often called a “7-11” committee due to state legislation requiring a minimum of seven members and a maximum of 11 members, is but one part of the process involved in closing a school.

Although Chester area schools are not slated for imminent closure, due to declining trends in student population and the possible closure of neighboring Greenville High School, the committee was created to advise Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) from the perspective of the Chester area.

Formed of community members, the DAC is charged with fact finding and gathering. At the end of its allotted timeframe, the committee will present the district’s governing board with a recommendation. In a letter dated Jan. 13, PUSD Superintendent Glenn Harris said that four such committees had been formed in Plumas County: one each in Portola, Chester, Indian Valley and Quincy. Each is tasked to gather data and develop a recommendation based on its area’s situation.

The Chester area DAC is comprised of nine community members: Chairwoman Traci Holt, Secretary Cassie Strand, Kacie Holland, Kathy Todd, John Lundquist, Wesley Maston, Gwen Meinhardt, Gina Pixler and Peter Schultz. Sonja Anderson, a member of the PUSD board of trustees, attended the meeting and sat with the committee in an advisory capacity.

As the Jan. 26 meeting was the first for Chester’s DAC, there was a bit of initial confusion over the scope of their charge, not to mention the time each of the four committees was given to develop their recommendations. With only six weeks to come to a decision regarding their recommendation, many of the committee members wondered if PUSD had already made its decision and had convened the committees out of protocol, rather than a desire to consider their recommendations.

Meinhardt pointedly asked Anderson, “Do you feel in some ways that the (PUSD) board and/or the superintendent have pretty much already made up their minds because they have been looking at data a lot longer than we have? To what extent are our recommendations truly going to be considered?”

Anderson replied, “As a board member, as a mom, as someone who has gone through the schools, I’ve not made any decisions. And I do not intend to make any decisions until all the reporting has been done.”

The committee had a number of additional questions for Anderson, most of which centered on the financial and structural data that had been gathered by PUSD and given to the committees to assist in formulating their recommendations.

Maston asked Anderson for clarification regarding the recommended retrofitting needed at the Chester Junior-Senior High campus in the event that PUSD takes steps to combine Chester areas schools into a single K – 12 campus. In the data provided to the committee, the proposed retrofit could cost upward of $2.9 million, and Maston wanted to know if there was a fund available to make those changes, if need be.

Anderson said that the state matching funds of Measure A, roughly $4 million, still exist in a fund dedicated to capital improvements for PUSD school sites. She did not say whether the full amount of the retrofit would derive from that fund.

Regarding such a consolidation in the future, the committee expressed concern regarding the Chester Elementary School (CES) site. According to Holt, should the school close and vacate the site, PUSD would lose control of the site. It would, according to Holt, revert to the original owners of the land, and/or their heirs.

This means that if the schools are consolidated, and then the population reverses course bringing new students to the area, Chester would be left with only one combined campus.

As the meeting progressed, committee members repeatedly voiced their concern that they didn’t have enough information to make such a weighty recommendation. A specific example of this stemmed from expenditure reports they had received from PUSD. The reports had categories labeled in some form or another as “other.” Two of the “other” expenditure categories totaled well over $4 million for the 2011-12 school year. The expenditures did not break down the expenses beyond the general category, and as such spurred the committee to ask Anderson for clarification.

Neither Anderson, nor Chester Junior-Senior High School Principal Scott Cory, who observed from the audience, knew the specifics of the codes or expenses concerning the expenditures. Anderson said she would ask Plumas County Office of Education (PCOE) Business Director Yvonne Bales for clarification and report back to the committee.

Discussion of the expenditures prompted a look at PUSD’s revenue. Currently the district is a “basic aid” district, meaning the amount of money the schools in Plumas County receive for their general fund derives from local property taxes. This owes largely to the rise in property values seen throughout much of Plumas County until the economic downturn.

Being a basic aid district, PUSD was able to keep any additional funding beyond the revenue limit established per child by California, and put that money toward the students. Although the district is still basic aid funded, with property values still declining there is a possibility that the district will slip into a “revenue limit” funding situation.

Simply put, in a revenue limit situation the state makes up the difference between property taxes and the limit it has established for each child. In this situation, there would be no overflow that could be fed back into the budget.

District-wide, this would cause the PUSD board to cut $1 million immediately from the budget. Because it seems PUSD could very well slip into that situation, the board has built a reserve fund to handle the cuts, but eventually the reserve will be exhausted. As such, the board has committed to making the cuts necessary to secure the district’s schools and provide the highest level of education for the district’s students.

Not every community would suffer in the event of the district reverting to a revenue limit funding situation. Sue Weber, director of Plumas Charter School’s Indian Valley Academy, said that Greenville would qualify for additional funding from Small School Funds. Now, however, it is a moot point because PUSD still receives more revenue from property taxes than the state revenue limit per student.

In the event that PUSD votes to close Greenville High School, and in the face of declining student enrollment, the question posed by the committee was: Would the additional students from Indian Valley really help in the long term, and would they even come?

Cory said that he couldn’t even hazard a guess at the numbers that would actually make the trip from Greenville to Chester, and that he wasn’t aware of any survey that had addressed the question to date.

One of the audience members, herself a member of the Indian Valley 7-11 committee, Judy Gimble, said that a survey had been conducted and that 99.9 percent of the Indian Valley parents said they would not transport their students outside of the valley for school.

One of the suggestions in the “Facility – Budget Study” prepared for PUSD is for Chester area schools to meet with Westwood Unified School District to discuss the possibility of merging high schools sometime in the future. Such a vehement response from Indian Valley parents regarding their students attending Chester Junior-Senior High School begs the question whether or not WUSD and its students would react in the same manner.

The committee members have a difficult six weeks ahead of them. While the decision ultimately rests with the PUSD board, the board ostensibly will weigh the recommendations provided by each committee heavily. The recommendations not only affect students, but communities, businesses, property values and community identity.

As one audience member said, “A community without a school isn’t a community.”

Ultimately, however, difficult decisions will be made first by the committees, and then by PUSD.

The Chester area 7-11 committee has scheduled its remaining five meetings every Wednesday for the next five weeks. The next meeting is Feb. 1, and will consist of two parts. At 4:30 p.m., the committee will meet with Chester area teachers to receive their input and discuss the faculty’s concerns. Then at 7 p.m., the committee will reconvene for a public forum. Both meetings will take place at Chester Junior-Senior High School, Room 2.

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