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Tim Myers: The neighborhood school funding conundrum

Posted: December 11, 2009 4:06 p.m.
Updated: December 13, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 
So the latest instance of dire public finances to rear itself in the Santa Clarita Valley relates to the Saugus Union School District, the elementary school district that serves the North River Valencia tracts, the Suncal development of Tesoro del Valle, the areas of Saugus proper and into Canyon Country on the Plum/Whites Canyon corridor.

The administration and elected school board mooted the possibility of closing up to five existing elementary schools that carry a rather high operating cost.

The irony? If the Saugus district goes ahead with the opening of West Creek Elementary School it will have opened three brand new elementary schools in the last eight years, while adding just under 1,000 students over that same period.

Now my reading indicates that academic studies tend to find the ideal size for an elementary school ranges between 200 and 800 students.

One would believe the Saugus district added three elementary schools in the last eight years to alleviate overcrowding. Well, yes and no.

From my personal perch in Northbridge, it seemed the Saugus district must burst at the seams. In 1996 when we moved in, total Saugus district enrollment stood at just under 7,500, and Helmers Elementary, the crown jewel of the district, stood at a comfortable 711.

In a mere five years the district would add another 2,000 students and Helmers would peak at a staggering enrollment of 1,132.

But the aggregate numbers tell a slightly different story.

At no time during its history did the average enrollment of the Saugus district per school go above the high end of the optional range of 800.

In that 2001 year, when portable buildings consumed every inch of the Helmers footprint, average enrollment stood at 733 for the Saugus district. (It would peak at 752 per school in 2004)

In 2001, Helmers enrolled nearly 400 more students than the average attendance. Did people lie about their addresses to enroll in this school?

The explanation resides in a much more mundane policy of the Saugus district and most elementary schools: The infrastructure required to maintain "neighborhood" elementary schools.

In the past, the neighborhood school model found justification in the need for a close facility for small children to make their way to and from school safely.

In these days when kids across the street from the school get dropped off, the justification disappeared, but these schools do now provide a centerpiece to neighborhood life, particularly in the suburbs with the absence of neighborhood churches to fulfill that need.

So while the average of enrollment did not exceed the ideal range, Northbridge and Northbridge Pointe contained and still contain unusually fecund families, since the enrollment at Helmers even after two new school openings remains more than 250 above the district mean.

But herein lies the funding problem. If Helmers (and Rio Vista and several other schools) stand so high above mean, by necessity several must be several hundred below the average.

And while the bursting schools attract larger funding from state per capita allocations (even at a reduced level) the smaller schools with their lower state funding still require similar utility and maintenance costs, and a not inexpensive administrative infrastructure including principals and assistant principals.

Therefore, the possibility of closing up to five elementary schools could save much more than the operating costs.

What caused this decline in some schools' enrollment?

To maintain a steady enrollment in a neighborhood school, maturing families must pull up stakes and sell their homes to younger, more fecund families.

In neighborhoods where folks stay put, a maturing population eventually leads to a large secular decline in enrollment.

If the Saugus district opens West Creek and closes five schools, average enrollment will spike to just under 950 in the district, meaning that some schools like Helmers and Rio Vista, forced to absorb incremental students, could soon populate 400 students above the ideal range.

How to resolve this question?

Most districts faced with this conundrum seek a new funding source, usually in the form of a highly regressive parcel tax; a flat fee assessed on each real estate parcel, whether it be a $300,000 condominium or a $5 million commercial property. This tax requires approval by the voters.

Make no mistake that if the Saugus district proposed such a tax it would pass easily. One can count on my neighbors in Northbridge, Northbridge Pointe and NorthPark to come out about 80 percent in favor of anything that relates to education, and the spectre of closing neighborhood schools will motivate others.

Could the Saugus district just be preparing for a parcel tax?

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident. His column represents his own views, not necessarily those of The Signal. "Myers' Musings" appears Sundays in The Signal.

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