Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Bret Harte Union High School District's Board of Trustees heard good news on a variety of fronts Monday as staff gave updates on standardized test scores, construction projects and the district's better-than-expected financial position.

Bret Harte High's students continued to make progress on their STAR standardized tests last spring, according to Superintendent and Principal Michael Chimente. Last year's junior class, the Class of 2013, scored particularly well, he said.

More importantly, many students improved their scores in math and English from "below basic" or "far below basic" to higher levels.

California's STAR tests measure understanding of core academic subjects and set benchmarks for improvement. One set of tests assesses knowledge of state-mandated curriculum, including English, math, history and science, from second to 11th grades.

Students earn scores classified as far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient or advanced. Chimente said he would now like to see more Bret Harte students progress from the "basic" level to proficient or advanced in each subject.

He's been meeting with heads of each academic department to develop strategies for that goal, which include offering students more help with homework and making sure they understand the importance of the tests.

Bret Harte High offers higher grades in exchange for a student's improved STAR scores. The incentive seems to help, Chimente said. He and staff now plan to invest more effort in tracking the progress of individual students over time.

In other news, Bret Harte High's new science building is rapidly taking shape. The approximately $4.5 million project will be mostly done by February, but the difficulty of switching classes there mid-year will postpone the move until summer.

The building has risen with lightning speed thanks to its modular design, which allowed sections to be assembled off campus and "trucked" in, staff said. It represents part of an $18 million school bond measure passed in 2008.

The ongoing project allowed Bret Harte High to capitalize on an additional $2 million in state funding for schools with "shovel-ready" work. The district recently learned it will receive the money and can apply it to a variety of other needs.

Those could include a badly needed ventilation system for the upper gym, scoreboards and seating for baseball and softball fields, a snack bar for the aquatics center, and new carpeting for the theater.

The board approved a list of possible projects Monday and gave Chimente the go-ahead to investigate their cost.

The money can't be applied to the district's general fund or operating expenses, he said.

Bret Harte High receives a bigger share of its funding from local property taxes than other local school districts. The Board of Trustees got a shred of good news about district finances Monday, and were told the decline in property tax revenues for 2011-12 wasn't as steep as expected.

That and other factors translated into about $30,000 more for the district in 2010-11, which Chief Business Official Gloria Carrillo described as "not a whole lot of difference." But if Proposition 30, a tax initiative backed by Gov. Jerry Brown, fails a vote in November, the district can expect to lose more funding.

To prepare for the possibility of teacher layoffs in the 2012-13 school year, the Board of Trustees approved "tiebreaker" criteria that would determine whom to lay off if two employees had the same hiring date.

The criteria that are considered are a teacher's experience prior to arrival at Bret Harte, his or her education level beyond a bachelor's degree, and other considerations.