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Penn Valley committee weighs school closure amid deficit spending, declining enrollment

Students exit Williams Ranch Elementary School at the end of the day on May 24.
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union

A committee of stakeholders has begun analyzing the Penn Valley Union Elementary School District’s enrollment trends, facilities and educational programs to determine whether the district should close one of its three schools to help combat a growing budget deficit.

The school facilities committee held its second meeting on Monday at Williams Ranch Elementary School. The committee is composed of 17 people, the majority of whom are members of the district’s administrative, certificated and classified staff. The committee also includes three parents with children in the school district, as well as a couple of community members.

The district is exploring a school closure on the recommendation of Superintendent Torie England, who has said the move is necessary to keep the district fiscally solvent; the district is currently battling a deficit of around $200,000.



The district’s board of trustees has tasked the school facilities committee with deciding whether or not it agrees with England’s recommendation, and, if so, which of the district’s three schools — Pleasant Valley, Ready Springs or Williams Ranch — should close. England has said any school closure would not take place until after the 2016-2017 school year.

“Eventually we’re going to hit a point where we won’t be solvent. The one-time money will be gone, the reserves will be gone, and it’s going to happen faster than we think because of the large amount of [deficit spending] in 2017-2018.” Torie Englandsuperintendent of the Penn Valley Union Elementary School District

However, before the committee can make a decision, it will be expected to discuss a wide variety of information compiled by Sacramento-based School Site Solutions, including facility renovation histories and the operating costs for each school site.




The committee attempted to wade through some of that information Monday evening.

That included an overview of the district’s budget, and its projected continued deficit spending. According to the district’s second interim budget report, it is projected to deficit spend around $119,916 next school year. That amount is expected to jump to around $459,000 during the 2017-2018 school year.

The consequences of that deficit spending will be dire, England said.

“Eventually we’re going to hit a point where we won’t be solvent,” England said. “The one-time money will be gone, the reserves will be gone, and it’s going to happen faster than we think because of the large amount of [deficit spending] in 2017-2018.”

The district’s budget deficit is directly connected to its downward trend in enrollment — something several schools across Nevada County are experiencing, district officials said. The district currently has around 612 students, which England said is about 30 fewer than the start of the school year. The district is projecting an enrollment of 589 students at the start of next school year.

At Monday’s meeting, Kayla Wasley, the district’s business manager, outlined some of the cuts the school board has approved over the past year to help the district stabilize its finances. Those included consolidating district special day classes, restructuring the office staff at Pleasant Valley and Williams Ranch schools and saving around $28,000 by changing the company that provides the district’s copy machines.

After forming the school facilities committee last month, the district scheduled three 90-minute meetings between May 9 and June 6, with an optional fourth meeting scheduled for June 13. The goal, England said, was for the committee to deliver a preliminary recommendation for a school closure to the board of trustees by mid-June.

However, at Monday’s meeting, some of the committee’s members voiced concern about the committee’s task, and the time frame in which it’s expected to be accomplished.

Those concerns included confusion over whether the goal of the meetings should be simply to recommend a school for closure, or to more closely examine other options that could save the district money.

“The opportunity to bring up all the different scenarios and things that play into making a decision like this, even if it means kicking the can down the road for a year or so, I thought that’s what we were here to discuss,” said committee member Mike Mastrodonato, the president of the Penn Valley Chamber of Commerce. He noted that if the school district simply wanted a school closure recommendation, that task might be better left to a business consultant; he advocated for a broader discussion.

“For us to sit here and crunch data in 1.5 hours and come up with that type of a decision seems kind of awkward, at best,” he said.

Several members of the committee asked district officials for additional information to consider, including a list of the district’s “big ticket” expenses and programs that could potentially be cut to save the district money in lieu of closing a school. The committee also asked for the district’s “break-even” numbers, or the number of students the district would need to have enrolled in order to keep all three of its schools open.

England said the district will provide that information. However, she noted, the board may not be receptive to cutting programs or expenses such as transportation; when she was hired by the board, England said, “the agreement was and my goal was to get our budget under control and get us out of deficit spending without affecting programs or services.”

England clarified that the board is expecting the committee to recommend a school for closure when it finishes discussions.

But, she said, “if this committee came to some other completely different thought process and that is your recommendation to take to the board, by all means that’s what we would do. We would just need to justify it.”

She added that if the committee feels it needs more time beyond June to consider the information, then that time will be granted so the process isn’t rushed.

“We can go as fast or as slow as you, the committee, wants us to go,” she said.

The next meeting of the school facilities committee is set for 4:30-6 p.m. June 6 in the Williams Ranch school library. All meetings are open to the public.

To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email elavin@theunion.com or call 530-477-4230.


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