Cloudy forecast for education in SLO County

Preparing students to succeed in an ever-changing global economy with new technologies while at the same time grappling with shrinking resources is one of the daunting tasks facing educators in San Luis Obispo County.

Several school superintendents on Wednesday stressed the importance of arming students with critical thinking and other skills beyond the core curriculum to get them ready for jobs that might not yet exist.

Yet deep budget cuts to education have forced district administrators to lay off teachers and reduce programs, and may prompt them to search out diverse sources of funding to pay for their strategies.

“We’ve got to move forward even though we have insufficient funds,” Lucia Mar Unified School District Superintendent Jim Hogeboom said at the seventh annual education forecast organized by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. The forecast provides a snapshot of the 34,150 students countywide.

Administrators are waiting to see if California voters will have the option to extend temporary increases in sales, personal income and car taxes that were set to expire at the end of June.

If they don’t, the 10 county districts and the office of education face an additional $20 million to $22 million in cuts, county schools Superintendent Julian Crocker said.

“It will be draconian cuts,” said Jack O’Connell, the former state schools superintendent and a San Luis Obispo resident who attended Wednesday’s event. “Not just to (K-12) education, but to higher education.”

Districts have already put together budgets that reflect a combined $8 million reduction, Crocker said.

“It’s getting to the point where there is no more room to wiggle,” said Tom Apkarian, superintendent of Pleasant Valley Joint Union Elementary, whose North County district faces a $100,000 cut to its $649,000 general fund budget.

But while administrators deal with budget cuts, they are also searching for new ways to give teachers the training and support to introduce more technology and hands-on learning.

“It’s no longer a ‘sit and get’ kind of classroom,” Paso Robles Public Schools Superintendent Kathy McNamara said. “We have to be able to provide for digital learners.”

Chris Adams, superintendent of Coast Unified, plans two separate classes where students will learn how to fix Apple’s iPad and iPod, and to help fix school computers.

“Students expect to see technology in their lives 24 hours a day,” he said. “They want to see interaction. They want some control of their learning.”

But Vicki Richardson, president of the Pleasant Valley school board, questioned the ability of districts to invest in pricey technology when “we don’t have the money to teach our kids the basics.”

Classrooms at Pleasant Valley, which serves kindergarten through eighth-grade students, have computers, she said. But the district doesn’t have extra cash to equip students with iPads, for example.

“It is expensive, but I would argue what’s being learned is essential,” Hogeboom responded. “The challenge of our time is: How do you move forward with 21st century learning with limited resources?”

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

Snapshot of SLO County schools

The San Luis Obispo County Schools 2011 Education Report was released Wednesday, providing a snapshot of the county’s 10 districts and 34,150 students. Here are a few highlights:

Students countywide scored above the state average on the Academic Performance Index, which is used to measure academic performance and growth. The state’s target is 800 on a scale of 200 to 1,000; the average county score is 41 points higher than the state average.

Six school districts and 42 schools have reached the 800 target, and five of the 42 schools have surpassed the 900 mark. However, an “achievement gap” persists. Of the students who are living in poverty, are learning English or have a learning disability, fewer score proficient or above on state English-language arts and math tests than countywide students overall.

The percentage of English-language learners and students qualifying for free and reduced-price meals has increased over the past decade.

Enrollment countywide has dropped about 1 percent in the past two to three years, the result of fewer births and high housing costs for young families.

About 25 percent to 35 percent of the current teaching staff in the county will retire in the next five years.

The total operating budget for the 10 districts and the county Office of Education for the 2010-11 school year is about $300 million, or about $8,700 per student. California ranks 43rd in per-pupil spending nationwide.