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Tim Myers: Saugus in well-heeled company on troubled list

Posted: June 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: June 5, 2012 2:00 a.m.
 

Within the last two weeks the California Department of Education, or CDE, confirmed the placement of Saugus Union School District, or SUSD, on a “watch” list of 176 other school districts whose current financial submissions indicate a strong possibility of insolvency (education expenditures outstripping inflows) over the next three years.

This does not constitute a good list. First, the state of California contains 1,131 school districts, so the “watch” list contains less than 15 percent of the total.

This means that despite years of punishing austerity, more than 85 percent of school districts, including the other four public school districts in the SCV, managed to balance their books.

More than most I want to criticize the SUSD. Three of our five children attended Helmers Elementary in Northbridge, two all the way from kindergarten to sixth grade. One of our grandchildren has also attended Helmers Elementary since 2009, so I believe I possess enough of a familial relationship with the institution to criticize it with abandon.

And much exists for criticism. After many years of significant growth in student headcount resulting in continuing increases in state per capita funding and a brick and mortar school building boom funded by developer fees and easily passed construction bonds, the SUSD accomplished the goal of an elementary school in every neighborhood right when it hit a demographic wall.

With actual declining enrollment the SUSD completely closed one elementary school, Bouquet Canyon, and de facto closed another, Emblem Elementary, but not before dumping millions in unnecessary improvements and refurbishments in the latter.

I hate to say it because I know, like and respect the administration of the SUSD and the serious elected members of the Board of Education, but it appears their training and experience ill suits them for a period of austerity, with which their brethren districts in the SCV cope much better.

But before exacting judgment and rendering punishment on the SUSD we need to look much closer at the less than 15 percent of school districts currently in trouble, and examine them for similarities with our own SUSD.

A look at schools in this unwanted peer group in Los Angeles County initially provides no surprise. Suburbanites will click their tongues smugly at the troubles of the gigantic Los Angeles Unified School District, but my neck nearly spun around when I spotted the South Pasadena Unified School District and the Las Virgenes Unified School District, the former covering that affluent sliver above the end of the 710 Freeway and the latter covering the affluent corridor of the 101 Freeway from Calabasas to Agoura Hills.

And what of blessed Orange County?

In the grittier areas of North Orange County we find Anaheim Union and Santa Ana Unified, but what’s this? Also on the list: Irvine Unified, the crown jewel of public schools in Southern California.

Saddleback Valley Unified, which includes familiar names like Mission Viejo and Trabuco Hills, and Capistrano Unified, the virtual twin of the SCV in demographics and numbers if an SCV unified school district existed nestled in the really nice sea-adjacent areas of South Orange County.

And the well-heeled areas of San Diego County do not find themselves immune from this virus: One finds on the list Carlsbad Unified, San Marcos Unified and Vista Unified, the school districts serving the beautiful seaside communities of the so-called North County.

What characteristics do all these communities share?

During the last economic boom, they all enjoyed the various windfalls to great advantage, just like the SUSD. Increased student populations fattened per capita state payments. Development fees provided for (probably excessive) school construction. Populations of a demographic that cherished their public schools enacted bond after bond and parcel tax after parcel tax with supermajorities.

But the most damaging characteristic probably related to the development of a certain level of hubris that believed that these blessed areas would find themselves somehow immune from the normal business and real estate liquidity bubble cycles, leaving them ill-prepared and equipped to overcome the current fiscal hurricane that sweeps across California.

And so, perhaps, rather than cursing the shortcomings of the SUSD, the SCV should probably exalt and praise the coping efforts and abilities of the other school districts in the SCV that do not find themselves on this list, to wit: The Castaic Union School District, the Sulphur Springs Union School District, the Newhall School District and the William S. Hart School District.

Tim Myers is a Valencia resident.

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