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7-11 committee takes comment from public, teachers at latest meeting
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, the District Advisory Committee for Chester area schools, also called the “7-11” committee, met for the second of its six weekly meetings. On the agenda for the meeting were three orders of business directly linked with the committee’s charge to provide the Plumas Unified School District (PUSD) board of trustees with a recommendation regarding proposed school closures and consolidations.
The committee broke the meeting into two parts, one allowing staff from both the elementary and junior-senior high school to have a dedicated time to voice their concerns, and the second giving the public the same opportunity.
In order to provide a recommendation to PUSD based on possible ramifications of the closure of Greenville High School (GHS) in the 2012-13 school year, and the possible consolidation of Chester schools to one site, the 7-11 committee formed subcommittees within the larger group to address four main areas of concern. These sub-committees are also charged with looking at the effects to the Chester area.
Sitting on the Budget Subcommittee are John Lundquist and Wesley Maston. The purpose of the budget subcommittee is to work with the other three 7-11 committees, pool their resources and dissect the budget line by line to see if any changes can be made that might change the fiscal circumstances forcing the possible closures and consolidations.
The Communication Subcommittee is made up of Kacie Holland and Cassie Strand. The purpose of this subcommittee is keeping the Chester area apprised of the ongoing situation, including meeting dates and times, and also creating surveys that will be used to gather information from the public.
Kathy Todd, John Lundquist and Kacie Holland sit on the Economic Impact Subcommittee, which aims to look into the possible economic effect on the Chester area if the recommendations made to PUSD by Superintendent Glenn Harris are followed. The first situation this subcommittee will look at is the effects caused by the proposed GHS closure, and the second would be the proposed consolidation of Chester area schools into one location.
The Facilities Best Use Subcommittee, comprising Gwen Meinhardt and Gina Pixler, looks at the school facilities in the Chester area, and explores possible facility changes that could mitigate the effect of the proposed consolidation, should it occur.
Staff comments, concerns
Chester Junior-Senior High School teacher Dave Bradley opened the staff input portion of the meeting by asking a very direct question of the 7-11 committee.
“Was this committee formed because we don’t have enough money to run our high school?”
Committee Chairwoman Traci Holt answered that the committee was formed in response to recommendations given to PUSD by Harris to close and consolidate school sites throughout the county in order to reduce the amount of deficit spending the district is projecting in the next school year.
The proposed cuts, as pointed out in the last meeting, Jan. 26, and again at the Feb. 1 meeting, would not alleviate the problem. The proposal given to the board of trustees by Harris projects upward of $2.5 million in savings to the budget, but falls short of equaling the estimated $4 million in deficit spending for the next school year.
Trustee Sonja Anderson, who attended the meeting, said that if nothing were done, the reserve funds currently held by PUSD would be exhausted by the deficit spending within three years.
In regard to the projections present in the recommendation to close and consolidate schools, many of the staff members present expressed concerns about the numbers given to the committee. Many asked if the numbers were accurate or if they could be trusted, and if the numbers should be used to make such drastic changes to the educational landscape of the county.
The proposal for Chester area schools, which, if enacted by PUSD, wouldn’t take place until the 2013-14 school year or later, lists two options. The first is to consolidate Chester Junior-Senior High and Chester Elementary to one site. The other recommendation suggests approaching Westwood Unified School District about the possibility of combining both high schools rather than consolidating the Chester schools. Of the two suggestions, it was the first, the consolidation of Chester sites, which created more discussion at the meeting.
CHS teacher Caitlyn Dalby said one of the reasons she returned to the Chester area was to teach in the same system she attended. She wanted her children to receive the same vibrant education that she received. A consolidated K – 12 school is not what she sees as a viable public education.
“I will move before I put my kid in a (consolidated) K – 12 school, and I will move before my kid has to go to a charter school,” Dalby said. “I believe in a traditional public high school, that’s why I got into it.”
Dalby’s feelings about the possible closures and consolidations are not unique among the staff. For younger teachers like Dalby another reality of the situation is that, should the high school in Greenville be closed, many of the teachers there have higher seniority than teachers in Chester. In simple terms, this means that teachers in Chester could face possible job losses from GHS teachers bumping them due to seniority.
CHS teacher Shawn Mahaffey brought the discussion back to the students by saying that any cuts and financial changes should be made as far from the classroom as possible. He went on to clarify that before steps are taken that may be irreversible, such as Chester Elementary School reverting back to the property’s owners and/or heirs if closed, the budget and figures need to be examined more closely, and any cuts should be made outside of the classroom first.
Mahaffey also brought up his concern about the possible “fair share” of PUSD’s funds that the state might take. PUSD, as a basic aid district, has its general fund completely funded by property taxes. As such, any excess can be put back into the budget or stored in a reserve fund for financial crisis. In 2009, California introduced legislation that mandated that basic aid districts, which are traditionally the wealthiest school districts in the state, contribute back to the state’s coffers what was called their “fair share.”
With the current turmoil in Sacramento over school funding, Mahaffey couldn’t project how or if PUSD might be affected by “fair share” but he did suggest that a lobbying group might be formed to ask the state to leave rural basic aid districts, like PUSD, out of “fair share.”
Public comment, concerns
The public contribution portion of the meeting produced a mixture of suggestions and comments concerning the possibility of school closure and consolidations.
Local business owner David Price expressed concern about school closure, saying that when people look to move to an area one of the first things they look at are schools. If a community doesn’t have a school, people likely won’t move there.
While Chester isn’t slated to lose a school, the concern is valid for a consolidated K – 12 school, as evidenced by Dalby’s comment.
Price’s concerns also included the impact on local businesses already hard-pressed by the economic downturn, and property values equally hit by the housing bubble. Losing a school, or consolidating a school, could affect each negatively.
Former PUSD Superintendent Michael Chelotti lent some of his expertise and experience to the 7-11 committee at the meeting. In doing so he suggested a bond measure might help the struggling district right the ship.
Chelotti said that when he became superintendent the district was very nearly broke and that a multi-million dollar bond was passed and stabilized the district. He wondered why such a bond couldn’t again be considered.
Another member of the public suggested raising the sales tax in Plumas County to make up the difference. Plumas County District 3 Supervisor Sherrie Thrall, in attendance at the Feb. 1 meeting, responded that while such an action is possible, with the fiscal realities of the economy, it might not pass as a ballot measure.
The public comment forum also produced a story of a similar situation that occurred in Stirling City. A couple in attendance at the meeting said that they had lived in Stirling City before moving to Chester. They said that the high school there was closed for similar reasons, and the students bused to Magalia. The school site was kept in hopes that one day the town would again have enough population to support a separate high school, but when the school closed many of the families in the town left.
The closure of the high school, according to this couple, severely impacted Stirling City, and now there is little hope that the town might rebound without its high school. They added that the school site sits empty and unused to this day.
While Chester may not be to that point yet, the story the couple told does point to the economic impact of a school closure. Greenville is facing the possibility of that impact in the very near future, and while Chester may not lose its high school, it does face possible consolidation.