Chico schools

Superintendent loses ‘interim’ but not her way

Kelly Staley

Kelly Staley

Courtesy Of CUSD

As Chico Unified schools prepared to start a new school year in August, Kelly Staley prepared to start a new career. The sudden departure of Chet Francisco thrust Staley into the superintendent’s seat. The school board planned to conduct a national search for a successor, so her promotion from assistant superintendent had the caveat of “interim,” with the one-year contract that title implies.

She hoped to keep the job, of course. Now it seems she will. The CUSD trustees announced at their board meeting last Wednesday Night (Dec. 5) that they’d decided, in closed session, to extend Staley’s contract a year. The deal remains to be negotiated, but since the district also canceled plans to hire a recruiting consultant, it seems the interim tag is history.

It’s clearly a vote of confidence … yet also a mixed blessing. The district has a budget crunch rivaling the city’s, and Staley expects it to get worse before it gets better. Staying in place into 2009 ensures she’ll be in the hot seat for labor talks—the teachers’ contract expires in summer ‘08. Test scores are under scrutiny. Plus, the district has been hit by enrollment declines and attendance shifts that have pushed the capacity at some schools while others have spaces to spare.

Ask Staley about her biggest challenge, and she’ll say it’s the budget. Ask her about the budget, and she’ll say, “It’s the pits.”

“Yes, the budget is the thing that keeps me awake at night. But then the other way I look at it is, it’s probably better to inherit that problem than leaving that problem behind as your legacy. We’re going to solve it—we don’t have any choice.”

She stressed that’s not a slam at her predecessors—"sometimes, things just happen that they didn’t have control over.

“It is not going to be a one-year fix getting out of it,” she added. “It is going to be a multiple-year fix. And it’s going to mean some lean times, and it’s going to mean we’re going to have to be very, very careful about how we staff our classrooms…. If the contract is at high schools 35-1 [student-to-teacher ratios] and the elementary level 33-1, we have to make sure we’re pretty close to those to use our teaching resources the best we can.”

Ah, the contract—as in the agreement with the Chico Unified Teachers Association.

Among the prospects Staley expects is “we’ll probably go through some times where we won’t be able to give raises, and that never goes over well"—particularly when labor talks are brewing.

“It’s not going to be easy. I know the days of getting pretty good coverage in the press are probably behind me once we go down that path,” she said, laughing heartily. “But you know what, sometimes you have to make the tough call and do the right thing. Certainly we have to be fiscally responsible.”

That doesn’t entail cutbacks alone. Staley has some ideas about generating more revenue, which she wasn’t ready to detail. “I just have to see if they’re legal,” she said with a chuckle. “That’s a good starting point, right?”

Staley was willing to share some ideas she has regarding school populations. She hasn’t run them by people, so they may come as a surprise to teachers and staff—they’re just possibilities.

CUSD has seen its enrollments decrease in recent years. Reasons cited include lower birth rates and the rise of charter schools, but whatever the cause, the trend was serious enough to prompt the school board to close two elementary schools two years ago.

One of them, Jay Partridge, now is the site of CUSD’s continuation high school, Fairview—and, ironically, plays a part in Staley’s thinking about elementary campuses.

Chico’s demographics and population are shifting. Housing developments on the north and east sides of town have led to heavy attendance at some schools (i.e., Shasta and Marigold) and light attendance at others (i.e., Rosedale and Chapman).

“I think we’ve managed to make everybody fit this year,” Staley said, “but what scares the crud out of me is that development going in across from Shasta, because not only is it already pretty full just from residents but also from Form 10 transfers. So perhaps we’ll look at boundary changes or some way to relieve pressure on them.”

Thinking outside the box, she’s pondered whether certain schools or programs should switch campuses. For instance, Fairview could relocate again, this time to Rosedale. “That’s a ready-made population where students don’t have attendance-area boundaries,” she said, and Rosedale’s neighborhood is full of college students who don’t have children. “Then that school would be full, and you could create space at the old Jay Partridge School.

“You could take Loma Vista’s special-needs program and put that at Rosedale or Chapman. Again, you have a ready-made population, and that would open up space at the north end of town.

“Are any of those ideas that everyone is going to cheer, stand up and say, ‘Yes, move me'? No! But do we have realistic solutions to the overcrowding issue? Yes—we just have to make the tough choices.”

One potential problem that seems to have been averted is a backlash over Measure A. In 1998, voters approved a bond issue for a new high school in Chico (the district’s fourth, including Fairview). The board decided this fall that another high school wasn’t needed, but the unused $30 million seemed too good to pass up, so the district solicited community advice on how best to spend it.

The answer: upgrading Chico High and Pleasant Valley. The board voted 4-1 to do so (with ‘06 electee Andrea Lerner Thompson dissenting)—and without seeking voter approval.

“What we heard over and over and over is, it’s [a] given that we can’t build a fourth high school, but the money needs to go to high schools,” Staley said. “Only at one meeting did we hear, ‘You need to not issue the bonds,’ and that was one person at Chico High out of all four meetings.

“Even though the bond language was much broader, the perception was that this needs to be aimed at high schools. I expected to hear a lot more of ‘it’s a new high school or nothing.’ Instead, it was, ‘Use the bond money for high schools and use your developer fees and other dollars for elementary and other needs.”

The improvements will come in three phases. “That’s not to say that parts of all three might not be going on at the same time,” Staley said, “but there certainly are three different aspects that fall into that.”

CUSD will build a performing arts center at Pleasant Valley, a $10 million project accounted for in the $18.75 million bond issue that’s already taken place. From the next set of bonds, Chico High will get permanent classrooms in place of portables (cost: $13 million).

This, as any third-grader will tell you, leaves one phase and $17 million.

Groups at Chico and PV will determine each campus’ needs, a process Staley expects to take a year. That’s fine, because that planning needs to dovetail with CUSD’s overarching Facilities Master Plan, and the bonds won’t get issued until they’re needed.

“Clearly we’re in an economic downfall,” Staley said, “and that’s when it’s nice to be able to give back, however little or big, to the construction industry in the community. Not only does that help us, because there’ll be a lower price for those services, but it also helps the community by keeping people employed.

“So across the board I feel good about it.”