State of schools digested

The breakfast went down more easily than the budget news at an Oct. 24 Eggs & Issues forum put on by the Chico Chamber of Commerce.

But school leaders did find some bright spots as representatives from the Chico Unified School District, the Butte County Office of Education, Butte College and Chico State University spoke on the “State of Our Schools.”

BCOE Superintendent Don McNelis said today’s students are smarter than ever. “Sometimes we think that kids aren’t doing as well as they used to,” McNelis said, but in reality the high-schoolers nationwide who took the SAT this year scored higher in math than any group that’s now age 18 to 52—which covered most of the audience at the CARD Center.

BCOE is facing a third year of budget cuts, all of which will affect the classroom, he said.

Rick Anderson, president of the CUSD Board of Trustees, echoed McNelis’ doom and gloom about the budget, but he said the district has been careful to plan for the $1.5-$2.3 million that must be cut each year and expects to shift $1 million a year from its reserves to offset the cuts.

Anderson also anticipated questions about progress on the new, $46 million high school funded by a 1998 bond. “Some time ago I wasn’t as optimistic about the possibilities,” he said, but talks about the land are progressing better than he had hoped. As for when the district can afford the $1 million a year needed to run it once built, Anderson said they’ll consider that later and possibly build smaller.

Butte College is taking a huge hit, said Martha Wescoat-Andes, vice president of administration there. Even after faculty and staff agreed to forgo salary increases, the state continues to take away revenue to the tune of at least 5.4 percent each year. If the cutting trend continues, she said, “We won’t be able to be all things to all people.”

On the up side, construction of the bond-funded Chico Center is progressing nicely and will cost property owners only $17 per $100,000 in assessed valuation—a couple of dollars less than expected.

Scott McNall, interim president at Chico State, said the “funding gap” is now at $24 million, threatening the university’s ability to provide a quality education and “real access to real classes.” Ten thousand eligible students were turned away last year, and the population boom referred to as “Tidal Wave II” is still arriving.

If the state Department of Finance gets its way, the 20-percent cut will mean a reduction of 3,500 students, which McNall said would be a hit of about $200 million on the local economy.