Washington School to remain open after board reverses decision
The little town of Washington has saved its school.
Four months after voting 4-1 to close Washington School at the end of June, the Twin Ridges Elementary School District Board of Trustees at a special meeting on Wednesday voted 4-1 to reverse that decision, and keep Washington School open — though the long-term feasibility of operating the one-room schoolhouse in a district crippled by deficit spending remains unclear.
As part of its decision to keep the school open, the board of trustees resolved to come up with a plan to both address the district’s deficit spending and establish criteria that would need to be met for Washington School to remain open in the future. The board set a deadline of its October board meeting to come up with those plans.
Board President Ralph Henson was the dissenting vote.
The decision, which was reached after more than two hours of discussion, was met with cheers and applause from the audience of about 30 members of the Washington community, many of whom have spent the last several months lobbying the board to keep the school open.
Parent Rachel Kozloski, who has led efforts to more closely examine the impact of closing Washington School, called the victory “hard-fought.”
“I always felt like this was the right outcome,” she said. “This is what should happen.”
The school’s fate appeared to be sealed in January when the board voted in favor of closure. That decision was based on the district’s financial situation, trustees said at the time. The district, which also serves about 100 kids at Grizzly Hill Elementary School, is battling a $272,000 budget deficit; district officials cited Washington School, a K-8 program that currently serves 10 students, as a key factor in that debt.
The district, which has a budget of around $1.2-$1.4 million, estimated it would save somewhere between $150,000 – $200,000 in closing the school.
However, after the board made its decision, those numbers became fuzzier. An analysis conducted by the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools office estimated that the district would save around $108,900 in the 2016-2017 school year if it were to close Washington School. That savings would fall to about $56,800 in the 2017-2018 school year, with the district seeing an ongoing annual savings of about $44,800 beginning in the 2018-2019 school year.
After receiving the report from Hermansen’s office, the Twin Ridges district contracted an independent financial services agency to crunch the numbers again. Based on that report, the district is now estimating it will save between $50,000 – $100,000 if it closes Washington School, depending on where the students who currently attend the school enroll.
The lower range of that estimate assumes Washington School’s 10 students would either attend a county office of education-authorized charter school or the Nevada City School District, which is the closest district to Washington; that would require the Twin Ridges district to make a per-student payout to those schools or that district.
The higher range of that estimate assumes all of the students who currently attend Washington School would either stay in the Twin Ridges district — traveling about two hours each day round trip to attend Grizzly Hill — or would attend a school district in the county that doesn’t require Twin Ridges to make a per-student payout. However, both district officials and parents have acknowledged that scenario is unlikely.
On Wednesday, several members of the audience — including Hermansen, who attended the meeting — urged the board to reconsider the school closure, noting it didn’t have complete financial information when it made its original decision — and still doesn’t.
Hermansen recommended the board delay closing the school for at least another year. She pointed out there are “too many uncertainties” — including questions about the district’s funding and where Washington students would attend school — to stick with the proposed closure for the 2016-2017 school year.
“I appreciate that you’re taking steps to look at [the budget deficit], but I also don’t feel this is an emergency situation, and the savings [from closing Washington] wouldn’t be significant enough,” she told the board.
During board discussion, Trustee Rebecca Wayman, who in January cast the lone vote against closing Washington School, again said she’s not ready to shut the school’s doors. Wayman said she doesn’t yet feel the board has pursued all options to reduce its deficit.
She said if she had known the district would save between $50,000 – $100,000 rather than the original estimate of $150,000 – $200,000, it may have altered the past several months of discussion.
“I don’t think I would have supported even going down the road of looking at a closure yet if I knew those were the numbers,” Wayman said.
Though Wayman’s fellow trustees all expressed support for keeping the school closed at different points during the board’s discussion, the tide of the meeting seemed to turn when Trustee Stefanie Freydont said the only way she would consider voting to keep the school open is if the board resolved to establish criteria for addressing its budget deficit and for continuing to operate Washington School.
That led Trustee Mindi Morton to motion to rescind the school closure with those caveats, and the motion won approval.
Kozloski said that although having the school remain open is a victory for Washington, the time has come for both the Washington and Grizzly Hill communities to come together to aid the board of trustees in achieving fiscal stability.
“We all have an obligation to help our district and we all have an obligation to look at how we can make things better for our kids,” Kozloski said. “I think I might be an overly optimistic person, but I really think we can do it.”
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
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