Rebelling against closures

Twin Rivers district officials put campuses in Del Paso Heights, Foothill Farms, North Highlands and Rio Linda on the chopping block while pushing for new campuses in Natomas

Community members gather at Rio Linda High School to share concerns about potential school closures.

Community members gather at Rio Linda High School to share concerns about potential school closures.

Photo courtesy of Stacey Bastian

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

Some of Sacramento County’s most disadvantaged neighborhoods are bracing for multiple school closures at the same time that their district, Twin Rivers Unified, considers building new campuses in more affluent Natomas.

Meanwhile, the group that Twin Rivers Unified School District created to help it trim an almost $4 million deficit is siding against the closures.

Twin Rivers Unified formed its Student Housing Committee earlier this year to advise the board of trustees on the closures matter.

Stacey Bastian, a member of several community groups in Rio Linda, served as vice chairperson of the committee. Bastian says the name that the district chose for this working group was anything but straightforward.

“In reality, it should have been called the school consolidation committee or school closure committee,” Bastian told SN&R.

Committee members spent eight months meeting with district officials and consultants about declining enrollment. The district has lost a reported 800 students in the last two years, contributing to an overall $3.8 million budget deficit. It recently announced that—despite $16.9 million in cuts during the same period—it’s now facing the possibility of closing six to 10 schools.

But the teachers’ union, Twin Rivers United Educators, or TRUE, says that the district is cherry-picking numbers to make its case. By TRUE’s calculations, the $3.8 million shortfall represents only 1% of the district’s $350 million annual budget.

“We feel like this is a gross overreaction to a 1% deficit,” said union president Rebecca LaDoux.

The union isn’t alone in that assessment.

After spending the better part of the year reviewing the district’s data, the Student Housing Committee recommended closing no schools. (It was presented with seven different scenarios involving closures. It voted 7-2 against four of them, 5-4 on two of them and 6-3 on the remaining one.)

Since then, the district has moved forward, and is considering the elimination of multiple campuses in Del Paso Heights, Foothill Farms, North Highlands and Rio Linda. Bastian says the people of Rio Linda already know from experience the toll that takes: Some years back, the district shuttered Rio Linda Elementary School.

“We lost a lot of kids when that happened,” Bastian recalled. “People still talk about it to this day—and how different the community is since that closure.”

Among the reports that Bastian and other committee members reviewed were numerous closure scenarios provided by the consultant group Decision Insight.

Public documents reveal that those scenarios included building new schools—in some cases, K-6 schools—near the Greenbriar and Grand Park developments in Natomas. In September, the district also reviewed an updated feasibility study for building new schools in Natomas. The district has long looked to the neighborhood as a place to stop the enrollment losses, just not with much success. It currently owns a half-finished campus in East Natomas that was supposed to be completed through a 2006 bond.

According to state education data, enrollment has actually been creeping up over the past four years, though average daily attendance—what the district gets state funding for—has edged slightly down. The district currently includes 46 schools and eight charter schools, which enrolled 32,538 during the 2017-18 school year, 5% more than when the district first formed from the ashes of four other districts in 2008.

Twin Rivers Unified remains one of the region’s most disadvantaged and diverse districts, with 85% of students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches and 28% learning English, including many Spanish- and Russian-speakers.

LaDoux says she and fellow teachers believe strongly that before the district opens any new campuses, it should prioritize keeping its current students from being bussed out of their own neighborhoods.

“It’s not in their best interest,” LaDoux stressed. “It’s a trauma for our students. We know that smaller schools are better for them, and we know that students who are at higher risk can fall through the cracks if they’re made to go to a mega-school.”

TRUSD deputy superintendent Bill McGuire said this week no final decision has been made on closures.

“We’ve tried to do community outreach, get input and flesh out ideas,” McGuire noted. “This is a big deal and we take it seriously.”

The district has two final public meetings scheduled for Dec. 3 at Rio Tierra Junior High Gymnasium and Dec. 4 at Martin Luther King Jr. Technology Academy Gymnasium.

McGuire also said any claims the closures are happening due to 1% of the district’s budget are oversimplifying since $150 million of its annual budget are restricted funds. He added that the reason the district is exploring new schools in Natomas is because it knows there will be a need there.

“Our district covers 85 miles,” McGuire said. “When the district is declining in one area, it may be gaining in another.”

But after months of working with the district on the issue, Bastian still disagrees that observation justifies closures.

“I saw no evidence, in what was presented to us, that these closures need to happen,” she said. “They keep saying this is necessary because they have less students, but I think they should be focused on learning why students are leaving Twin Rivers in the first place. ”