San Diego Unified School District once again facing massive budget shortfalls, must close 10 schools throughout district.
Concerned Pt. Loma/Ocean Beach parents, teachers, and kids packed the Jackson Theater at Dana Middle School Monday night to near its 548 person capacity to hear district officials explain their latest ideas on how the financially distressed district plans to cut costs and avoid insolvency in the near future. Signs reading “Save Our Schools” were raised throughout the room as the Dana Middle School band played for their early arriving guests, and TV news vans lined the street in front of the school. But there was a definite sense of anguish among the gathered crowd, and they were there to seek answers and a rationale for the closure of schools that had been “outperforming the norm” according to Matt Spathas, the Pt. Loma Cluster president.
The latest proposal from the San Diego Unified School District includes plans to relocate the Barnard Mandarin Chinese Magnate School from its current home off of West Pt. Loma Ave to another location within the district; shuttering Cabrillo Elementary; and combining Dana Middle School and Correia Middle School into one school and closing the other.
By closing Cabrillo Elementary, said SDUSD Deputy Superintendant Phil Stover, the school district estimated it would save up to $400,000 per year. By closing one of the cluster’s middle schools the district could save up to $600,000 per year. Cabrillo Elementary is the smallest school in the cluster, with a current enrollment of 202 students and a capacity for 300.
Previously the district had proposed closing Dana Middle School and relocating the Barnard Magnate School into the Dana building, however staunch community opposition led district staff to reconsider. “We want The Panda to be able to grow and expand,” said Stover of Barnard. The facility that currently houses the school is in poor condition, he said, and the school has outgrown it.
Barnard is a unique language immersion school that has earned national accolades. The program has a waiting list for admission, and has been featured in the U.S. Department of Education’s The Magnate Compass magazine for magnate schools. By relocating and expanding the enrollment of the Barnard school the district would be able to take advantage of the high demand for the school from all around San Diego County and realize additional revenue.
The district is also planning on reconfiguring the Pt. Loma Cluster schools to make the elementary schools K-5 instead of the current K-4. This would allow the cluster to combine the two middle schools—Dana currently serves the 5th and 6th grades, while Correia is home to the 7th and 8th grades. Other changes include the possibility of increasing the K-3 class sizes to a 29 to 1 student to teacher ratio in the coming years.
The prospect was raised of Barnard relocating to the Correia location should the lone middle school for the cluster be placed at Dana.
The San Diego Unified School District has compiled a list of 14 schools to be considered for closure, with a target number of 10 to be shut down, saving the district $5 million. The school district is facing funding shortfalls of $60 million beginning in January, 2012, with the potential of reaching $80 million. “There is a 50/50 chance that the district will be insolvent within one year,” said school board member Scott Barnett.
The San Diego Unified School District “bet big” that tax revenues in the state would increase enough to avoid a major funding shortage, said Spathas. But that gamble certainly did not pay off. And with the latest round of cutbacks even more classified staff—including bus drivers, administrative, and custodial staff—stand to lose their jobs. It is not expected at this time that teaching positions will be eliminated.
With most of the schools within the cluster operating at very near capacity, district administrators were asked how they could expect to be able to consolidate schools and not overrun the schools’ capacity. It was explained that as a part of the district’s cutbacks, most of the busing programs that transport students participating in Program Improvement School Choice program will be eliminated, thereby eliminating many of the cluster’s school choice students, resulting in a slight decrease in enrollment in the Pt. Loma schools.
Residents also expressed concerns about what the district would plan to do with the schools that are closed down. Mr. Stover informed the audience that there are currently no plans in place at this time to deal with excess district properties. Mr. Barnett also stated that it was highly doubtful that any of the closed properties would be sold off, and instead the district would seek ways to generate new revenues from them via new lease agreements with outside parties such as church groups or other community groups, or possibly offered to charter schools. The district, he said, currently earns $6.5 million per year from properties that are not currently active, a figure that could potentially be doubled.
Concerns were also raised about the district’s ability to maintain the current facilities within the cluster and expand a school’s capacity where necessary. Barnett said that Prop S funds that have been allocated to a school scheduled for closure can be reallocated to other facilities within the cluster. According to an information packet disseminated by the realignment/closure committee, the district could see a benefit of $35 million or more by being able to move funds to other campuses. This includes projects within the Pt. Loma Cluster, specifically funds to improve the athletics facilities at Pt. Loma High School with the potential to improve facilities the high school shares with other cluster schools, including Dana and Correia.
By the end of the evening the assembled crowd, while certainly not pleased with the possibility of seeing one or more of the cluster’s schools shut down, were more informed and aware of the magnitude of the problems facing the district. The initial anguish throughout the auditorium that the Pt. Loma Cluster had been unfairly targeted had subsided somewhat, as the district administrators who had addressed the throng made it clear that clusters from all over the second largest school district in the state of California were being presented with similar dire outcomes. “We need to work with the district, not against it” to find creative solutions that save our schools said Spathas, the cluster president. “The district is listening to what the community has to say” before they make any final decision, he said.