Pat Butler: Vote may decide where schools take us |

Pat Butler: Vote may decide where schools take us

It’s hard to imagine that a proposed one-eighth cent sales tax could be a bellwether for the area’s future.

But it’s come to that for our school system and perhaps for our communities as well if economic vitality remains a concern.

Nevada County Superintendent Terry McAteer will be asking the Board of Supervisors to place the proposed tax hike on the November ballot. Since it is a sales tax, visitors also would be investing in our long-term interests.

The numbers that compel McAteer to propose the tax are alarming. The county has 650 fewer students than a year ago. That represents 5 percent of a shrinking student body, and it will cost our schools $3.2 million in state aid next year. It is the biggest loss of students in a single year, but the trend has been gaining momentum for more than a decade.

For example, the Grass Valley School district had 2,423 students in 1990. Now, it has 1,655 students.

Western Nevada County had 13,000 students last school year. Now, it has 12,350. That number could drop to 11,200 by next school year.

“The word of the day is we’re drying up,” said McAteer, who has held his job for the past 12 years.

Families who leave the county are moving to places where they can earn more money and pay less to live even if it means some commuting. McAteer, whose office does exit interviews, estimates about half of these families are leaving the state and half are going to metro areas like Sacramento.

“In the late ’90s, we were talking about school construction, and now we’re talking about school closures,” he said Wednesday.

The combination of rising property values and stagnant wages is driving the middle class out of this area. They are being replaced by newcomers whose children have likely long left the nest. The majority of young families who do stay here work long hours for that privilege.

To make his point, McAteer offers these facts:

• 83 percent of Nevada County residents do not have school-aged children;

• None of our county supervisors or city councilors have children in school;

• Nevada County has the oldest mean population in the state;

• Approximately 70 percent of our students are latch-key children;

• There is not a single recreation director in the county.

When McAteer ticks off these facts, he wonders if “schools are out-of-sight and out-of-mind in our county.”

If the proposed sales tax makes the ballot and then gets the necessary 66 percent of the vote, McAteer will use the estimated $1.7 million per year it raises for art, music and after-school programs.

The tax would remain on the books for five years. If the measure fails or does not make it to the ballot, those programs likely will be eliminated. Schools are still required to teach reading, writing and math even as the number of students in each class gets smaller.

These extracurricular programs, McAteer believes, are essential for many reasons. In the immediate sense, they give our children something to do other than playing video games, chatting on the Internet, hanging out or doing other things.

“The number one issue in their lives is that they’re bored,” he said, adding that can become a bigger problem if the parents are not home after school.

In the larger sense, a school district that doesn’t offer extracurricular programs will soon find itself at a competitive disadvantage with other districts. Eventually, that will make it even more difficult to attract businesses that offer living wages as well as doctors, nurses, teachers and other professionals who place a high value on education.

McAteer said he has personally met with doctors who are considering moving here and they want to know if their children can get a quality education at our schools. If businesses and professionals begin to shun this area, the exodus we are now seeing could accelerate.

“The question is not what kind of town we are going to be in 10 years. It should be what kind of employment base are we going to have,” McAteer asks rhetorically since he knows what happens to communities that can no longer nurture a middle class.

When discussing the future, McAteer seems to get most concerned about recreation and after-school programs for children who are living in a much different world than most of us experienced. Our youth are less active, more jaded and entering a global economy where the rules are still being written.

“There’s no doubt why we have an obesity and drug issue in this county,” he said. “It’s a much tougher to be a child today.”

And although he is a passionate believer in recreation programs, McAteer is not going to hire five recreation directors to work this summer at parks and schools. It will save $35,000 that might be needed to teach the three Rs next year.

While a new tax is always a hard sell, McAteer’s tax measure will likely be sharing ballot space with road-tax proposals.

Nevada City will almost certainly be asking its residents to support a half-cent sales tax to fix its rocky roads. The Nevada County Transportation Commission is exploring a sales tax to help finance big projects like the Dorsey Interchange. It has also been discussed in Grass Valley as a partial solution to traffic complaints. The state’s $36 billion bond deal will be on the November ballot as well.

Traffic, of course, is where our growth debate gets stuck. Some people come unhinged when they talk about the couple of hours of congestion a day at the Idaho-Maryland and East Main intersection or of the possibility that a longtime business’s expansion plans might add two seconds or more to their wait at a stop sign.

This obsession about traffic and the complicated traffic policy that it has spawned are overshadowing our schools’ budget problems. McAteer, however, is not discouraged that his tax proposal might run into the traffic roadblock. He feels obligated to let the community know of his concerns and then let us decide what kind of community we want to live in.

“You see potholes,” he said. “You don’t see kids sitting at home. You only see them when they are being adjudicated.”

The only obstacle to letting the public participate in this monumental decision is the Board of Supervisors. The five members on the board would be doing a tremendous disservice to the community if they killed this measure.

We deserve the chance to decide if its roads, schools or none of the above that we care about.


Pat Butler is the editor of The Union. He can be reached by e-mail at or by phone at 477-4235.

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