Turning the tide on school closures

Twin Rivers officials will have to look elsewhere to reduce $3.8 million deficit after hundreds rally to keep disadvantaged schools open

Hundreds of parents, students and community members rallied in McClellan Park on Jan. 28 to protest closing schools in their neighborhoods.

Hundreds of parents, students and community members rallied in McClellan Park on Jan. 28 to protest closing schools in their neighborhoods.

Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

Hundreds of people holding signs, beating drums and chanting slogans took to a former U.S. Air Force base last week and made it clear they wouldn’t accept losing five schools in their neighborhoods.

By the end of the evening, the Twin Rivers Unified School District’s board of trustees voted 6-1 to not close any campuses across the north city and county of Sacramento. In so doing, trustees followed the advice of a community panel that had been ignored by district leaders.

The confrontation, with droves of parents and teachers on one side, and Twin Rivers administrators and consultants on the other, had been brewing since the beginning of 2019.

The district reported losing 800 students in the previous two years, leading to a $3.8 million annual deficit—about 1% of its budget. The district formed a community group to review potential responses to the shortfall, which included closing six to 10 campuses from Old North Sacramento to North Highlands.

After months of study, the committee recommended not shuttering any schools. Nonetheless, Twin Rivers administrators pushed ahead with proposed closures, even as they continued planning to build new schools in more affluent Natomas.

But signs were emerging even before the Jan. 28 school board meeting that the closures would be a hard sell. Twin Rivers school board trustee Ramona Landeros had already told SN&R she’d decided not to support the effort.

“I think schools are the cultural hubs of a community, so if we’re talking about closing schools in impoverished communities, I’m opposed to that,” said Landeros, who is running for Sacramento City Council.

The economic challenges Landeros cited are borne out by state data; the district’s 46 schools and eight charter schools are spread across some of the most disadvantaged and disinvested neighborhoods in Sacramento County.

Some 85% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, which experts consider a better gauge of economic hardship than the federal poverty line. Those statistics were on the minds of some community members who arrived in McClellan Park to protest the closures, even those without kids in the district. They were joined outside by Twin Rivers school board trustee Mike Baker.

“This turnout is pretty awesome,” Baker said. “We need to take a step back and reevaluate where we are as a district and rethink this. … We need to form a new committee that looks at all options, instead of being so quick to just jump to ’close schools.’”

Baker’s presence at the demonstration was a boost of confidence for some of the people who had been worrying about the vote for a long time, including Sarah Cavalari, who teaches first grade at Babcock Elementary School.

“My kids are what’s going through my mind tonight,” Cavalari said. “We’re a small community school. Basically, we’re more than just an infrastructure for kids to come to in the morning. We’re a community hub. To remove that from our parents, our kiddos, would be detrimental to our students. … We have many students who have trauma. We have a large number of students who have autism. It’s really important for me to be here tonight and be an advocate for all of them.”

When it came time to vote, six trustees raised their hands to spare nine schools from either closing or major changes: Babcock Elementary, Fairbanks Elementary, Hillsdale Elementary, Sierra View Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Tech Academy, Smythe Academy of Arts & Sciences, Westside Preparatory Charter, Vista Nueva High and Pacific High.

The only trustee to vote in favor of closures was Michelle Rivas.

While the closures were avoided, the trustees did vote to reconfigure a number of campuses. Noralto Elementary School and Harmon Johnson Elementary School will be consolidated into one K-6 campus. Hazel Strauch Elementary School will change from a K-5 to a K-6 campus. Rio Tierra Jr. High School will be altered from a 6-8 to 7-8 school.

And, over the next two years, Dry Creek Elementary will change from a K-4 to K-6 school, Orchard Elementary School will change from K-8 to K-6, Woodridge Elementary School will change from K-4 to K-6, Foothill Ranch Middle School will change from 5-8 to 7-8 and Rio Linda Preparatory Academy will change from 5-8 to a 7-8.

District officials had floated the idea of postponing the closures vote until well after the March 3 primary—an idea that was strongly opposed by the Twin Rivers United Educators, or TRUE. School board members Basim Elkarra and Linda Fowler are up for reelection.

“If the vote was held after the election, obviously it’s harder to hold the board members accountable,” TRUE president Rebecca LaDoux said. “The constituency wants to know the outcome.”