Lucia Mar could face even worse choices

The Lucia Mar school board could consider closing a school next year if members decide to begin a broader plan to cut costs in the face of continued budget cuts expected in the next few years.

The board at its May 4 meeting is set to consider moving forward with a proposed timeline and criteria for a committee to look at district schools, operating costs and enrollment, among other things, said Superintendent Jim Hogeboom.

This process would decide whether the district ultimately closes a school or moves some of its students to other campuses.

The proposal is one way to help the district deal with more expected budget shortfalls. Lucia Mar — San Luis Obispo County’s largest school district — expects to cut $5 million in expenses during the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. Those cuts would amount to 9.6 percent of this year’s $52 million budget.

The school board in March voted to issue 83 initial layoff notices for 71.9 teaching, counseling and administrative positions, which would reduce the current shortfall by $2.2 million. Final notices must be issued by May 15.

A committee of Lucia Mar school administrators, union leaders, teachers, parents and community members tasked with finding other possible savings has suggested pay cuts, trims to sports programs and school closures to meet the anticipated shortfall.

The district faces cuts for several reasons including declines in state funding and enrollment — 268 fewer students attend district schools now than in 2004-05, and that trend is expected to continue next year, with about 50 fewer students.

The state has reduced the amount it gives Lucia Mar for each student, to $4,964 this school year from $5,800 per student in the 2007-08 year. That could drop to $4,743 next school year — or a total decrease of 18 percent over four years.

“Is my kid worth that much less than last year?” asked Kevin Statom, president of the Lucia Mar Teachers Association and an Arroyo Grande High School teacher.

The union leader said he thinks the solution to the budget crisis might be local. He envisions the formation of a foundation that could help support schools and their activities.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what we’re going to have to endure,” he said. “We’re trying … to ramp up community activity to support our school district.”

The union is hosting a community forum Thursday to brainstorm ways to help the district.

“Teachers … won’t have a lot of time to work on ideas and get them in place,” said Gwyn Kelly, a math teacher at Nipomo High School. “But maybe someone in the community does and they can bring it up in these meetings.”

Meanwhile, Hogeboom asked board members to prioritize a list of potential criteria that would be used when discussing school consolidation. If the board votes to move ahead at its next meeting, a committee will be appointed by July and start meeting in September.

It would make recommendations to Hogeboom in December, which he could take to the board in January.Board member Erik Howell took issue with the term “consolidation,” saying, “We’re talking really about closing a school. … I don’t want to close any of our schools.”

But doing so could save about $300,000 to $400,000 by eliminating costs associated with the school’s principal, librarian, custodian and others assigned to the administration of the campus, as well as the cost to maintain the site, Hoge-boom said.

Lucia Mar could also generate money by leasing a closed school’s campus, board President Colleen Martin said Thursday. Elementary schools would likely be the most affected, though the advisory committee could discuss other options, such as combining grades kindergarten though eighth at one campus.

The idea of closing a school is not new.

“Every time we get a report with declining enrollment, the issue of consolidating schools comes up as a way to save money,” Martin said.

The board in 2006 deadlocked over forming an advisory committee to study whether to close a school. Three board members — two of whom, Howell and Georgie O’Connor, still serve — said then that was too soon to begin the process.

The process of closing a school or moving students by redrawing boundaries could take two years, which doesn’t help the district much financially in the short-term. However, Martin said: “We need ongoing savings. We’re willing to explore all avenues.”

Union budget forum next week