Special report: SLO County public education in crisis

Amid corrosive budget forces, educators have fought to keep classrooms whole. But cracks — shorter school years, larger classes and fewer electives — could split wide open, many say, without voters’ help in November

acornejo@thetribunenews.comJune 9, 2012 

JULIA HICKEY AND JOE JOHNSTON

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 | Part 2 » | Part 3 » | Part 4 »

The shrill ring of the school bell reverberates through the morning as children hurry to their classrooms, backpacks bobbing. Brightly lit classrooms and smiling teachers await. The day will begin and end without interruption at the schools in San Luis Obispo County’s 10 districts. And to a casual observer, it would seem that today’s school day is no different than five years ago.

But a closer look reveals cracks in the façade.

Kindergarten through third-grade classrooms have grown from 20 students to more than 30 at some schools.

Fewer electives and Advanced Placement courses are available in high schools, while across K-12, time for science, social studies and the arts slips away.

In the worst-hit districts, school years are being shortened, and another three weeks of learning could be cut statewide next year.

The cause: a cumulative loss of $50 million siphoned from schools by the state in the past five years, a loss of more than $17,000 per classroom. If Gov. Jerry Brown’s tax initiatives do not pass in November, area educators say, that number could fall by $441 more per student, equating to an additional $15 million loss countywide.

Yet much of this is not apparent to the public.

Countywide test scores, for example, continue to rise as local students excel beyond the state averages in English and math. But the gap between high achievers on the one hand and those who are not reaching the same academic targets as their peers, often minorities and students in poverty, has stayed the same.

Nearly half of all students enrolled in San Luis Obispo County public schools arrive for class each day from disadvantaged backgrounds.

And English is not the first language for a quarter of the county’s student population.

Educators forewarn that the toll of the budget cuts already made could be crippling for those students who are struggling. The devastation just isn’t visible yet.

“I call it internal hemorrhaging,” said Julian Crocker, county superintendent of schools. “We don’t see the bleeding, but the illness is very real. Most people see that schools are still open, teachers are in classrooms, the yellow buses still run, the stadium lights are still on for Friday night football. What’s the big deal?”

Patina of normalcy

The differences between now and five years ago are visible everywhere, once you peel back appearances.

Parents must now pay for their children to ride the bus to school. In some districts, summer school is no longer offered. Cafeterias are rowdier because there are fewer employees to supervise students, and fewer eyes oversee kids on the playground.

Two school districts, Paso Robles and San Miguel, have already been forced to cut their school calendars because they can’t afford to pay their teachers to work those days.

In Paso Robles Unified School District, students will have eight fewer days of instruction next school year. San Miguel students have lost five days for two consecutive years.

“It’s not just business as usual. We want the community to know that ... teachers are suffering and their families are suffering,” said Jim Lynett, president of the Paso Robles teachers union. “We’d prefer to be working and in school, but because of state and local problems, we’re not able to do that.”

Across San Luis Obispo County, $50 million has been taken from schools by the state cumulatively over the past five years.

Five years ago, the average unified school district in California received $5,821 per student. Ideally, in 2012-13, that amount should have increased to $6,742 per student, but because of state budget cuts, it will be reduced to $5,281. That total $17 million difference between 2007-08 and 2012-13 amounts to a drop of $540 per student.

Now, that number could decrease by and additional $441 per student, equating to a $15 million loss countywide, if Gov. Brown’s tax initiatives fail Nov. 6, forcing districts to absorb in one year close to the same amount they lost over the past five.

All but three of the county’s school districts rely on state funding to operate. San Luis Coastal, Cayucos and Coast are funded mainly by local property taxes. Those districts have not faced the same financial hardships.

The cuts could cripple already struggling schools and cut the school year short by three weeks, resulting in a direct hit on student learning. “I think we don’t know what the full implications of all the cuts will be down the road,” said Rodney Wallace, superintendent of Shandon Unified School District. “Our students are being shortchanged.” Wallace said the school district has done everything it can to keep the cuts as far away from the classroom as possible, but now there is nowhere else to go.

“There is no place out here to cut anymore,” Wallace said. “We didn’t issue any layoff notices this year because we can’t. At some point in time, some school is going to say, ‘We can’t do it anymore,’ and close the doors.”

As it is now, teachers are left to shoulder the brunt of the reductions.

Classroom assistance has been stripped, and teachers are constantly being trained how to be more efficient while taking on new tasks.

“We know what works, but we can’t do what we know because we can’t afford the support to get it there,” said Kathy Hannemann, assistant superintendent for education services in Atascadero. “What is worse is that we are burning out our most talented people.”

Hardest hit

The county’s most vulnerable students, those from low-income families and those facing language barriers, often struggle silently. Their needs aren’t always readily apparent.

As state funding continues to decline, the needs of these students continue to grow.

The percentage of low-income students in the county has risen to 43 percent of the total school population from 34 percent in just five years. Many predict that number will keep growing. That group includes families of three who make less than $35,317 annually.

Also alarming is the number of homeless students: In kindergarten through 12th grade in San Luis Obispo County, the number of homeless students has more than doubled in the past five years. That number grew by 150 percent to 1,595 in 2011 from 637 in 2007.

The highest numbers of homeless students attend schools in San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles. Of the 1,595 homeless youths, 1,214 — about 75 percent — are living doubled or tripled up in homes with other families.

The outside struggles these students bring with them to the classroom can hinder their learning progress.

Some of them arrive at school hungry. Others go home not knowing where they might sleep that night.

“It is these real-life issues that have a heavy impact on family life and affect the support that families can give their children,” Crocker said. “As much as these parents want to support their children in school, it takes a back seat.”

Proven strategies to keep those students from falling through the cracks are slowly being whittled away as cash-strapped school districts struggle just to keep the doors open.

“There is no longer money to do anything,” Crocker said. “Districts can no longer shift resources around, meaning that there is no way to deal with the impacts.”

In Shandon, 72 percent of the district’s 301 students are considered low-income.

Superintendent Rodney Wallace’s wish list for those students is nothing extravagant: books to send home because most don’t have them and a way to provide computer and Internet access.

“We are the Internet access here,” Wallace said. “Some parents have it, but most don’t. I find students every once in awhile sitting on a bench in front of the school on weekends to get wireless.”

But given the budget, Wallace said the district can’t even afford to keep the library open extra hours or replace aging technology.

The number of English learners in county schools has remained about 14 percent of all students in the past five years. However, taking into account declining enrollment at many school districts, that group of students is becoming a growing part of the student make-up.

For example, in San Luis Coastal, the number of English learners has grown to about 14 percent of all students enrolled in its 15 schools compared to 9.8 percent five years ago.

Children from affluent, English-speaking families are able to get additional support at home to help offset the reductions in school, Crocker said.

“This support often is not available from families in poverty and non-English-speaking families,” Crocker said. “So, although the measures may go up, the unseen casualty is the students in these two groups.”

Hope on the ballot

Schools may get a reprieve if voters pass the governor’s two statewide initiatives that would raise sales and income taxes for high earners to restore funding to K-12 schools.

A competing income tax plan, called the Munger Initiative, will also be on the ballot.

If voters reject the governor’s tax increases, schools will lose an additional $6 billion statewide.

Struggling school districts, which already cut all peripheral spending, would be forced to cut their school years by up to three weeks to compensate for the additional revenue loss.

“Three weeks — it is huge,” Hannemann said. “I can’t predict what that would mean for education. We can’t even teach the standards well now in the time we have. To take three weeks off the calendar would be devastating.”

Student learning won’t be the only thing to suffer if schools are forced to shut their doors to students because of the state budget.

“For many of our students, lunch is the only meal they get,” Hannemann said. “School is literally the stone for many families — the one constant in their lives.”

Educators predict that the academic gap between students from affluent families and those in poverty will grow.

“The have and have-nots are really going to show,” Hannemann said. “I really think schools that have high concentrations of poverty and English-learner students are going to suffer a lot more than schools that don’t.”

Well-off families will use their own resources to make up for the reductions in school, Crocker said. Increased efforts by parents and community partners to offset budget cuts through fundraising efforts are not enough to replace what has been lost.

“We are completely at the mercy of the Legislature and the taxpayer, and these are hard times,” Hannemann said. “There is no escaping the fact that the state is broke.”

The future of education depends on taxpayers agreeing that now is the time to invest more in schools, she said.

“Schools are the only hope for providing a solid future, and these children’s hope is going to depend on those who are going to vote on the initiatives.

“People need to realize that it is an investment worth making.”

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939.

SLO County public education in crisis: Part 1 | Part 2 » | Part 3 » | Part 4 »

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