Education

Expecting millions in future budget gaps, new SLO schools nonprofit hopes to fill hole

A new nonprofit has been formed to supplement the San Luis Coastal school district budget. This image shows San Luis Obispo High’s campus.
A new nonprofit has been formed to supplement the San Luis Coastal school district budget. This image shows San Luis Obispo High’s campus. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

A new nonprofit education foundation has been formed with the goal to raise millions of dollars to support the San Luis Coastal Unified School District budget.

The fledgling nonprofit, San Luis Coastal Education Foundation, aims to help fill gaps in technology, innovation and student equity and achievement — and it will help make up for significant budget cuts from Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant’s closure, according to foundation leaders.

The organization officially launched in November, and it’s now in full swing as a fundraising arm to the public school district that includes K-12 campuses in San Luis Obispo, Morro Bay and Los Osos.

The district faces budget cuts of about $9 to $10 million annually, starting in the 2026-2027 school year, from the planned closure of Diablo Canyon, said district Superintendent Eric Prater. The district’s overall budget currently is around $92 million, Prater said.

“Diablo taught us that school funding can be unpredictable, and it is imperative that we build community investment in our schools,” Prater said. “Rather than allowing the Diablo closure to rock us back on our heels, we are leaning in to this opportunity in order to innovate and excel through deeper collaboration with local partners.”

Board continues diverse set of community leaders

Prater is one of the foundation’s 25 board members, representing several cross sections of the community, including local business, education, political and medical leaders.

The board includes former Congressman Sam Blakeslee, San Luis Coastal Assistant Superintendent Ryan Pinkerton, Hourglass Project director Melissa James and SLO County Director of Airports Kevin Bumen.

The foundation received $10 million from the passage of Senate Bill 1090 (PG&E mitigation funding as part of the Diablo Canyon closure) to grow an endowment and support ongoing foundation work, and the nonprofit has a goal of raising an additional $10 million, said Christine Robertson, its executive director.

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Jace Hudgers, 10, talks to judge and San Luis Coastal School Board trustee Marilyn Rodger about a desalination project his 4th grade class worked on. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

No funding is currently planned to go toward teachers salaries, said Prater.

“We have to be cautious and prudent in moving beyond these levels — especially as revenues decline while the cost of employees rise,” Prater said. “The foundation should not get into the business of hiring teachers as this would make for an uncertain funding model post the Diablo closure.”

Prater said the organization also has been set up to prevent conflicts between public school policies and donations.

“We designed it very carefully with the input of an outside consultant,” Prater said. “We have done the legal work and taken the precautions knowing that could be an issue. I imagine there will be some challenges and questions, but we have no problem being transparent and sharing concerns.”

A close working relationship will help ensure money is spent toward initiatives that teachers, students and staff will find beneficial, foundation leaders said.

Teachers and students will have the opportunity to apply for grants and offer ideas for initiatives for funding. As examples, students could apply for money to pay for tests for college applications; additional spending could provide access to computing resources and robotics.

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Guy Crabb, a fourth-grade teacher at Teach Elementary School, talks to students about a science project in August 2014. A new nonprofit has been formed to support the San Luis Coastal district. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

‘Significant equality gap’ an issue

About 40 percent of San Luis Coastal students are socio-economically disadvantaged, Robertson said.

“Within the community, there is a significant equality gap,” Robertson said. “How do we develop strategies for all of our students and reduce the achievement gap?”

Similar models of educational foundations have enhanced districts in the Bay Area, in particular, where Silicon Valley workers with school-age children and other parents have supported fundraising organizations to ensure the quality of education for students, according to foundation representatives.

“K-12 educational foundations in Silicon Valley have been enormously impactful implementing math, science, arts and technology initiatives into the classroom with funding that otherwise wouldn’t be available,” Blakeslee said. “They overall have shown great success.”

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Christine Robertson, executive director of the San Luis Coastal Education Foundation. Joe Johnston jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Robertson, a former high school teacher, previously served as the chief of staff of the California State Senate and Assembly. In 2013, she co-founded and led the Institute for Advanced Technology & Public Policy at Cal Poly. She said the new foundation is a way to get out in front of the pending tax revenue losses from the closure of Diablo Canyon, set to take effect in 2026.

“Things are changing and we need to adapt now, so we don’t have to go into crisis mode later and make negative and draconian cuts to our schools,” Robertson said. “We have the opportunity to do something really innovative.”

As an additional funding stream mechanism, Prater said the district currently is also looking into developing workforce housing at some of its school sites, which could help house teachers and school staff members.

Pacific Beach High School in San Luis Obispo and the Morro Bay Elementary School and Sunnyside Elementary School sites have been eyed for new development, but no specific plans yet have been worked out, Prater said.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.
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