Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Vallecito Union School District may move fifth-graders from its two elementary school campuses to Avery Middle School, an idea that drew immediate criticism from parents at a recent school board meeting.

Vallecito Superintendent Phyllis Parisi said the move most likely wouldn't happen in time for the 2013-14 school year and is only a tentative discussion at this point. It's driven by the district's need to run more efficiently, she said.

Vallecito staff has been considering the switch for the past few years, according to Parisi. But parents said they first became aware of the proposal just before the district's March 6 board meeting.

"I just feel like they're not fully listing the pros and cons," said Lehua Almadova, of Murphys, the parent of a Michelson Elementary fourth-grader.

She and Mark Twain Elementary School teacher Sara Tutthill, who has two students at Albert Michelson Elementary School, said they were worried about what Tutthill described as exposure to "sexual innuendos" and "mature behavior choices."

Even if the fifth-graders were separated on Avery's campus, they'd have to ride the bus with other middle schoolers, Almadova said.

She also said she didn't feel that the district was giving "straight answers" on its motivations for the possible switch.

Parisi described it as an overall reassessment of the district's resources.

Like Bret Harte Union High School District, Vallecito draws most of its revenue from local property taxes rather than the state. That has made it more vulnerable to fluctuations in the real estate market within the past five years.

District business manager Gretchen McReynolds is projecting a further 6 percent decline in property tax revenues over the next two years, with deficit spending and shrinking reserves.

McReynolds' March 6 budget report noted that the district intends to study "reconfiguration of schools" to make sure it can survive changes in the economy.

Another factor behind the discussion is Vallecito's plummeting enrollment.

During the 1996-97 school year, it had a full 1,089 students, or almost twice as many as the 580 it does now.

Avery Middle School was built in 1994 and had 421 students its first year. During the 2012-13 school year, the district anticipates having 215 students there.

Enrollment at Hazel Fischer Elementary School and Albert Michelson Elementary School has dropped by about 60 percent and 45 percent, respectively, since 1994. The district expects even further drops.

Moving fifth-graders to Avery could allow Vallecito to deploy staff members more effectively, Parisi said.

Teachers of students in kindergarten through third grades concentrate most on teaching their students how to read.

Parisi said moving fifth-graders out would allow Hazel Fischer and Michelson schools to provide stronger early intervention programs for kindergartners through third-graders.

Of the 1,303 middle schools in California, only 105 served fifth through eighth grades as of 2010-11. The most popular arrangement puts sixth- through eighth-graders together, the arrangement Avery Middle School uses now.

Toyon Middle School, the only other middle school in Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, serves seventh- and eighth-graders.

Tuolumne County's elementary schools all enroll kindergarten through eighth grades, an arrangement Tutthill said she would prefer because older students become protective of younger ones there.

Asked about the persistent rumor that Vallecito will close Hazel Fischer Elementary due to declining enrollment, Parisi acknowledged it was a possibility - but only one of several the district is considering.

The switch of fifth-graders to Avery Middle School wouldn't happen until more planning is done and "thorough" discussion is held, she said.

The board of trustees plans to review it at an upcoming study session that hasn't yet been scheduled.