Hard times mean hard decisions for schools

Union Democrat staff /

On the spectrum of political decisions, closing a school is one of the toughest.

Short of whole-scale faculty layoffs, school boards will do just about anything to avoid shutting a campus.

That's because each school, especially here in the close-knit Mother Lode, is a community unto itself. Teachers, parents, students and administrators get to know each and become close and comfortable. Routines become familiar and traditions are revered. Their campus, in many ways, becomes a second home.

That's why it was sad to see last week's Curtis Creek school board vote to close Sullivan Creek School. As a result of the action, some 170 students at the intimate Sonora Meadows campus will next year move across the district to attend the larger Curtis Creek School. Declining enrollment, the sagging economy and shrinking revenues were blamed for this last-resort action.

Neither trustees nor Superintendent Britta Skavdahl, it was obvious, took any delight in the decision. Yet, what is even sadder, both were roundly criticized.

Opponents contended that the administration did not thoroughly research alternatives and suggested that cuts elsewhere or transforming Sullivan Creek into a K-2 school could save the campus.

But it was too little too late. A perfect storm of declining revenue and plummeting enrollment forced the move. And closure of SPI's Standard Mill, which is in the district, won't help.

Sullivan Creek wasn't the first Tuolumne County school to fall prey to enrollment and economy. The Twain Harte School District's eight-year-old Black Oak School closed at the beginning of this school year.

"Trying to operate two half-full schools is not very wise financially," said Twain Harte Board President Joy Meyer after the 2007 closure vote.

"It's a tough, unprecedented time," Twain Harte Trustee Dennis Spisak told his Curtis Creek counterparts last week. "Work together," he suggested.

Those may be words to live by, not only within the Curtis Creek District, but in Tuolumne County's community of schools.

Amid the Sullivan Creek debate came something positive: A Curtis Creek teacher stressed that his school would greet the transplants with open arms next year. "We'll move heaven and earth to make those kids feel welcome," said Curtis Creek math teacher Ron Parker.

The next casualty may be Chinese Camp, one of California's smallest schools. Merger with a larger district may be necessary to save the one-room school.

And there's no guarantee conditions will improve any time soon: The Association of California School Administrators has warned that finances will be dicey at least until the 2010-11 school year and, here in Tuolumne County, school enrollment has been declining for more than a decade. A decline of more than 2,000 students - the count has dropped from more than 9,000 in 1995 to just above 6,500 - represents an annual countywide loss of more than $10 million in state per-student payments.

So far, cooperation and sharing have helped the county's 12 districts survive: Twain Harte Superintendent Mike Brusa, in the wake of the Black Oak closure vote, resigned and cleared the way for the district to share Summerville High School's Superintendent John Keiter. Columbia Elementary's John Pendley is now in charge of Belleview School as well. And the departure of Curtis Creek's Skavdahl could open up more sharing opportunities.

The next step would be actual consolidation of districts. This has been a controversial issue in the past, but county voters haven't seen a merger on the ballot since the late 1960s.

One got close in 2002, when a petition signed by more than 5,600 who urged combining the Sonora High School District with its feeder elementary districts reached the California Board of Education. But state trustees denied us a chance to vote on the issue.

Times, however, have changed and our 12-district layout may no longer be the best fit. More than 70 percent of those participating in an on-line poll conducted by The Union Democrat were in favor of some form of merger.

Debate, certainly, continues over whether consolidation would save money. But given today's brutal financial and demographic realities, it deserves to be among options explored.

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The Union Democrat
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