Schools out

Trustees toll final bell for two Chico schools

DID IT REALLY HAPPEN? <br>Supporters of Nord Elementary School were crushed by trustees’ late-night decision to shut down the campus. Left: Trustees Rick Anderson, Jann Reed and Anthony Watts struggle with their votes. Inset from left are: Jackie Cooper, Junelle Lawrence and Kelly Noble.

Supporters of Nord Elementary School were crushed by trustees’ late-night decision to shut down the campus. Left: Trustees Rick Anderson, Jann Reed and Anthony Watts struggle with their votes. Inset from left are: Jackie Cooper, Junelle Lawrence and Kelly Noble.

Photo By Tom Angel

The school board backed off a staff recommendation to charge the Chico Area Recreation District (CARD) the $120,000 the CUSD figures it owes for using school facilities. Trustees also refused to save money by reducing the district’s contribution to athletics, because it would mean families would have to pay more for their children to participate.

They didn’t think it would really happen. Nord Elementary School, the center of a tiny, close-knit farming community, had been threatened before, only to escape the budget ax.

“They’ve done this to us four times,” said Junell Lawrence, the school’s office manager, whose children attended Nord starting in 1979. “I’m still desperately hoping that something different will happen.”

But near tears and before a shocked-silent audience, the school board did it. Trustees spent hours chipping away a few thousand dollars at a time from a budget with a $1.1 million deficit, only to vote, shortly before 1 a.m. Friday, March 25, to close both Nord and Jay Partridge elementary schools.

“Everyone was blown away by the decision,” said Cathy Frost, an instructional aide at Jay Partridge, who said she walked out of the meeting, held at Chico Junior High School, in a daze.

A board-appointed Campus Consolidation Committee had recommended, by way of several scenarios, that the district close the three small schools in Nord, Forest Ranch and Cohasset, along with either Jay Partridge or Rosedale. District officials calculate that closing Nord, with its 54 students, would save $164,000 and an in-town closure would net a savings of $444,000.

The process, which spanned two late nights, did not go smoothly, as the board moved on to the school closure discussion without completing other budget cuts and then went back at the request of Trustee Scott Huber to finish looking at the list. Trustees Anthony Watts and Jann Reed brought their own lists of ideas for cuts. The board went back and forth on eliminating year-round education and finally did so, effective 2006-07. District staff showed a running tally of the cuts totals using an overhead projector.

Ultimately, the board voted to make 12 cuts, including: reducing the use of portable buildings; putting money set aside for the strategic plan into the general fund; cutting all district departments by 6 percent; and eliminating district-paid extra-duty positions, such as department chairs. Three and one-half jobs will be lost: a site administrator, a classified manager, a clerk and a half-time custodial position.

The dollar figure stalled at around half a million, and it was then that the mood began to shift from discouraged to depressed.

Finally, Huber made a motion to close one in-town school and one out-of-town school. Watts, saying the closures were a one-year fix at best and nearly impossible to undo, voted no, as did Reed, the board’s newest member.

A 3-2 vote to close schools then forced a vote of which to close.

When Huber said his preference was to leave Rosedale open, the room grew silent. He said that his daughter attended Jay Partridge for two years, and he had formed the opinion that the location is unsafe due to traffic.

Soon, it became clear that Nord was gone for sure and Jay Partridge would be the odd school out within Chico. The vote came down to Reed, Watts and Huber favoring the closure of Jay Partridge, while Anderson and Rees felt Rosedale would be the better choice.

Reed in particular is now facing the wrath of parents who remember her school board campaign platform included keeping schools open.

“They have every right to feel that way,” said Reed, who the Monday after the vote was trying not to second-guess herself. “I let down a whole bunch of people.

“There were four votes for closing Nord and I didn’t know how to persuade [the rest of the board] not to. … I voted for it, and I don’t agree with it. What a contradiction,” she said. “I kept looking at that screen, and we’d only saved $500,000. I felt backed into a corner. It was the decision that seemed most workable.”

Reed had wanted to see more ideas, including possibly closing a junior high campus. Now, she hopes to support the idea of a charter school at the Nord campus.

At this point, those who fought to keep the schools open seem too burned out to figure out where to go from here.

“We’re kind of in shock,” said Janet Ellner, who has been a teacher at Nord for 20 years. The Nord community has gained American Civil Liberties Union support for the idea that it was prejudiced to single out Nord, as well as Rosedale, which have large minority populations.

Julie Ricci, a member of Schools Unified for Better Solutions (SUBS), feels like two months of volunteer work went to waste as the group made suggestions both for cuts and generating revenue.

“We came up with so much stuff going through the numbers that the district office gave us,” said Ricci, whose children attend Sierra View Elementary. In the end, she said, “I feel like they were just pacifying us.”

Trustees said it’s likely school closures will end up on another cuts list next year, unless volunteers can rally support for a parcel tax or large-scale fund-raising—something few seem in the mood for right now.

At Jay Partridge the day after the vote, two assemblies let students know their school would be closed next year. “Most of the students got to school and didn’t know what had happened,” Frost said. “There’s sort of this awesome responsibility to keep this in a positive light. How they see us respond to it is how they respond to it.”

Lawrence, who stopped by Nord while the school was off track last Friday just to water the plants, had her mind on practical as well as emotional matters. The school is the oldest in the county, with a large bell given to it by Annie Bidwell. "Where’s our bell going to go? Where are our old photos going to go?"