The CUSD Board of Trustees is planning to spend at least $1.2 million to open a new high school in fall of 2013 despite a projected deficit of $3.2 million and dwindling reserve funds.
Never mind that the school is not needed at this time and that its operation will be paid for out of the same pot of money that funds the existing schools.
Never mind that only 300 students have enrolled to attend the new school next fall, making the cost run the school an unfathomable $4000 per student.
One might wonder about the math skills, or perhaps the logic, of the board members who approved that.
The new school, Sage Creek High (SCHS), was constructed to alleviate anticipated overcrowding at existing Carlsbad High (CHS) based on enrollment projections that have turned out to be over-estimated. After a construction bond measure was passed by Carlsbad voters in 2006, the economy took a downturn, and growth in Carlsbad slowed. Last year, there were 3230 students enrolled at Carlsbad high, 600 fewer than the projection.
The school board members and district officials who control the decisions insist that there are costs associated with not opening the school, both financial and legal. Claims have been made by board members or rumored lawsuits if the district doesn’t deliver on its promise to voters who supported the bond measure with the understanding that they would get a new high school out of it. Also, concerns were expressed that if the Sage Creek facility was vacant after completion, the district would be obligated to give any interested charter schools the first right of refusal to occupy the buildings. Charters in California are typically granted for five year terms, making a later opening of Sage Creek as a district school complicated.
These two reasons, given by every board member who has given a response to questions from the community, sound like the boy crying wolf when examined closer. First of all, no lawsuit has emerged since that allegation was made in the fall, and the claims of legal action remain unsubstantiated with no plaintiff coming forward, no parties being named, and no suit filed as of now.
As far as a charter school usurping the space if it is not occupied in August, the application and approval process for a charter school to operate within a district is long and complex. Whether a charter could successfully complete a bid to take over the Sage Creek campus within the time needed by CUSD to sort out its spending priorities is unknown, some might even say unlikely. A current charter school bid by Oxford Prep Academy is enduring an appeals process and possibly defeated due to complex and challenging requirements that Oxford Prep was unable to meet. It is also possible that even if Sage Creek opens in the fall, a charter school could apply to rent space within any unoccupied portions of the campus; since Sage Creek is not going to be at capacity for several years, this possibility is equally real. Hinging Sage Creek’s opening on the uncertain chance of a charter school staking a claim is unsatisfactory.
Critics of the school’s planned opening in August 2013 point out the areas in which the district has already made cuts and which are still facing more cuts if revenues don’t increase drastically. Those voicing their opposition include the local teacher’s union, teachers, staff, some community members, and even some parents. They maintain that the expense involved in opening and operating SCHS will jeopardize the more than 10,000 students of the district in many ways http://delaysagecreek.com/wait/: less money for textbooks, supplies, cleaning, maintenance, technology, support staff, and security; increased class sizes due to not being able to hire additional teachers to accommodate the additional classes; resources for sports and the arts split between two high schools, shortchanging both; the potential of cutting more than seven instructional days in order to afford the $1.2 million price tag (Opening and first year costs equate to 7.2 days of teacher pay).
Last year, when CUSD was facing a budget shortfall, saving $300,000 by closing one small alternative high school that served just over 100 students seemed logical. Never mind that this school had a proven success record in reaching marginalized students through its unique program and dedicated campus, or that the savings was a drop in the bucket yielding a remaining $2.4 million deficit for the current school year. That was the decision made by the Carlsbad Unified School District Board of Trustees in spring of 2012. Logical enough.
So when that same school district is facing an even greater budget deficit the next school year, one might expect that same school board to take a similarly conservative, cost-cutting approach to the expenditures presented before it.
Not in Carlsbad.
School board members have been fielding emails, phone calls, letters, questions in the hallways, and impassioned speeches from both sides. The big question - where the money to open the school will come from, and whether more cuts will have to be made to existing services to support it - remains unanswered as school staff and board members defer to future budget projections that won’t be made public for several more weeks. Superintendent Suzette Lovely was quoted in the Coast News in January as saying, “We can’t start planning and actually budgeting until the legislative process goes through its whole course.”
Based on financial commitments that have already been made - the salary of the school’s principal, Cesar Morales, for instance, which has been coming out of district general funds since July 2012 - it seems that decision makers have done more than just plan for Sage Creek expenditures - they’ve spent.
More speeches from both sides are expected at the school board meeting on Wednesday, February 13 at 6 PM at the district offices on El Camino Real in Carlsbad.