Small-schools shuffle

To some, when money gets tight, the littlest schools look extravagant

MONKEYING AROUND Forest Ranch students (from left) Richard Boehm, 9, Bodie Wright, 10, Tanner Ulsh, 9, and Steven Kaufmann, 10, take time out after lunch on the relatively new school’s playground.

MONKEYING AROUND Forest Ranch students (from left) Richard Boehm, 9, Bodie Wright, 10, Tanner Ulsh, 9, and Steven Kaufmann, 10, take time out after lunch on the relatively new school’s playground.

Photo by Tom Angel

Any ideas? Supporters see big potential for Forest Ranch Elementary as a magnet school or home to other alternative programs the district could offer. The school has a garden, its students score high on state standardized tests, and it draws a high number of community volunteers.

The kids know what’s up. Spying a reporter and photographer on the Forest Ranch Elementary School playground, students swarm unprompted to share some serious schoolyard dirt.

“We might lose one of our coolest teachers,” one girl says urgently. “It’s not the right thing to do.”

“My mom went to the board meeting,” another interjects. “They’re not giving up.

“They’re waiting to see if the enrollment goes up.”

At its June 19 meeting, the Chico Unified School District Board of Trustees will consider whether to approve a 2002-03 budget that includes several administration-suggested cuts, including the loss of one of four teachers at Forest Ranch and the end to the half-time, on-site principals at all of the district’s three “small schools,” Forest Ranch, Cohasset and Nord elementaries.

It’s scarily similar to talk back during the 1999 budget cuts that those schools cost so much to run that, by the numbers, they’re inefficient—perhaps too costly even to keep open.

Back then, it was Nord Elementary for which things looked the gloomiest. The interim superintendent at the time even put a price tag on Nord: Closing the school would save $128,500 a year. Children came, crying, to board meetings, and parents launched recruitment efforts. Enrollment there is holding steady at 71.

Cohasset Elementary, with its 55 students, seemed to be flying under the radar until last year, when more than 200 trees were felled around the playground without so much as a note to trustees.

As the public-relations nightmare unfolded, it became apparent that administrators and school board members rarely ventured up the hill to that school. Now, the district is trying to make nice with the Cohasset community even as it drops the principal position.

To Margie Smith, a Forest Ranch resident who has taught at the school there since 1988 and was an aide for six years before that, it just doesn’t make sense for the school take what amounts to a one-quarter reduction in teaching staff. “That’s a huge ratio that’s being cut from our school.” And it fuels fears that district administrators are looking to shut the school down altogether.

CUSD Superintendent Scott Brown, who, along with other administrators, met with concerned parents last week, said it’s way too soon to worry about schools being closed. “I think school closure is an unreasonable fear today,” he said. Enough cuts have already been proposed to balance next year’s budget, so the schools are safe for 2002-03.

“I completely understand the passion they feel for Forest Ranch School,” said Brown, who added that he likes the atmosphere there and dislikes the idea of sending children on long bus rides to and from Chico, 15 miles down the hill. “If we can educate them close to home, we want to do it.”

But as far as the principal shift and teacher cutback, it’s just a matter of balancing the budget. “Based on their enrollment, a reduction from four teachers to three would be in line with what’s going on [cuts-wise] at other schools.”

Brown said he’s not sure yet how they’ll handle the principal issue. “We’re going to have to assign those duties to other administrators,” he said. “It won’t be the same solution for each school.” Chris Connerly, whose two sons are “thriving” at Forest Ranch, said the school should not bear the brunt of the CUSD’s declining enrollment and budget problems.

“I do not understand why Forest Ranch School should be held to the same class size requirements of schools in Chico, where teachers have only one grade to teach and have full administrative support,” she said. “We are taking our share of budget cuts by losing a half-time principal. Is it fair to cut 25 percent of our teaching staff too?”

While it’s hard to picture discipline and red tape being handled with no one in the Principal’s Office, the teachers worry most about cramming together three classes with three grade levels each.

“You’ve got beginners in with [students] who can read and write,” said Smith, who currently teaches a class combining grades 2 and 3. “I don’t know how we’re going to manage it.”

The CUSD projects that 69 students will attend Forest Ranch in 2002-03. (An earlier report that the projection is 55 students was in error because the draft budget mistakenly switched Forest Ranch’s data with Cohasset’s.)

Brown said when the new school building went up in Forest Ranch just 11 years ago, all enrollment projections pointed to its serving more than 200 students by this time. Obviously, it’s not an exact science.

As administrators continue to crunch the numbers downtown, the Forest Ranch supporters are frustrated that the CUSD administration seems displeased with the situation and yet has not set any goals for them to meet, such as rallying new students to sign up or trying to get a day care to set up shop locally so parents won’t move their children out just because they can find after-school care only in Chico.

“Are the small schools like Forest Ranch the ‘canary in a coal mine’ for the school district?" Connerly wondered, pointing out that elementary enrollment is declining everywhere in the CUSD, not just Forest Ranch. "How many parents are choosing home schooling or private school because they want more input into their child’s education than they feel they get with the local public schools?"