George Boardman: Another example of why we should consolidate school districts | TheUnion.com

George Boardman: Another example of why we should consolidate school districts

George Boardman
Columnist

Principal Erica Crane of the Sierra Academy of Expeditionary Learning is in an excellent position to drive a hard bargain as she looks for a new site to house the charter school.

Thanks to western Nevada County's rapidly disappearing public school system, most of our school districts find themselves with too much space and not enough students. Turning those abandoned buildings into cash is becoming a high priority.

Crane is in negotiations with the Nevada Joint Union High School District to lease space the district doesn't need on McCourtney Road. The Nevada City School District would also like to see SAEL in the soon-to-be empty Nevada City Elementary School.

NCSD is demanding a monthly lease payment of $14,575 for the 1937 Art Deco structure that has housed Yuba River Charter School the last six years. The high school district knows what number it has to beat if it wants to fill its space. Of course, Friends of NCE think the asking price is too high, so there still may be room to negotiate.

Friends of NCE is a group of Nevada City residents who want to see the old school used in some educational capacity, either as a charter school or reopened as a district elementary school. School district officials profess the same goal but unlike the friends group, have to face the financial reality they have an asset that is slowly becoming a liability.

When Nevada City Elementary was closed in 2010, the school district was on the state's watch list of financially troubled districts. District trustees responded by chopping the $9 million budget by 17 percent and eliminating staff, teaching and administration positions in addition to closing the school.

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The situation hasn't improved much since then. Practically every public school district in the west county is losing students to charter schools or families leaving the area for jobs that can support a family. Given the limitations of the local economy, it's no surprise many high school graduates leave the area to attend college and never come back.

But none of this seems to matter to Friends of NCE — they are determined to see the building used as a school, and not turned into housing, offices, or some other use. District officials' clumsy attempt to try to envision a future for the building hasn't made the situations any better.

With Yuba River Charter's lease expiring in June, the district formed an ad hoc committee to discuss future uses of the site. District Superintendent Trisha Dellis has said education is the preferred use: "We have made it clear that we value the property as a school. We value its historical place in the community, and we want to keep it a school. Reopening is not an option."

The friends, fearful that something nefarious may be afoot, want the ad hoc committee to meet in the open and take more public input. In a coordinated effort to put pressure on district officials, the group wrote an "Other Voices" piece that was published in The Union and issued a press release reiterating the same points.

Among other things, the press release claimed the district miscalculated how much longer Yuba River Charter would stay at the site, leaving little time to find a new tenant. Implied, but not stated, is that a vacant building would give the district an excuse to sell it. Dellis bats away the claim, pointing out the charter school signed a one-year extension of its lease that expires at the end of the school, and notified the district in December that it is definitely leaving for its new home. As for the charge the ad hoc group has been secretive, Dellis said a member of Friends of NCE is on the committee.

The friends and their supporters made a showing at the trustees' Jan. 16 meeting. According to Terri Anderson, a spokesperson for friends, "dozens" of people came out in force to express their support for keeping the site a school: Students as far back as 70 years, past teachers, bus drivers, neighbors and others.

That's when the district put a lease for the building out to bid, and will review the situation at Tuesday's board meeting. SAEL has until Thursday to close a deal with the high school district.

If the building is vacant next school year, district officials should bite the bullet and explore the possibility of selling it. They may want to hold onto the building, but they also have a fiduciary responsibility to the people who support the district — that would be the taxpayers of Nevada City — to prudently manage the district's assets. If the district refuses to get rid of a building nobody wants, voters may think twice before approving another school tax increase. Spending money to maintain an unused building is just another drain on funds that should be spent in the classroom.

As for the Friends of NCE, they need to remember that teachers — not buildings — educate our children. There's nothing magical about an old Art Deco building, especially one that has outlived its usefulness. Just because it's old doesn't mean it's worth preserving. While they're at it, they should also brush up on some basics of economics, particularly the part about the highest and best use of property.

This contretemps is another example of why we need to consolidate our small — and getting smaller — school districts. The current collection of fiefdoms is wasteful and inefficient, and doesn't serve the best interests of our children, which is the point of having schools in the first place.

George Boardman lives at Lake of the Pines. His column is published Mondays by The Union. Write to him at ag101board@aol.com.

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