Having just completed 10 years of service on the Buellton Union School District board, I can say that the question of unifying school districts in the Valley to save money is one we are asked all the time. It’s actually a very good idea.
So good, in fact, that a few years ago all districts chipped in for a feasibility study on whether it should be done, and if so, how we could make it work so it would save the most money.
Imagine our surprise when the answer came back that it is still better for the districts to remain separate. The reason is basically the crazy way the state pays school districts’ basic funding.
Even being an accountant and being on the school board for 10 years, I still don’t completely understand the complexities of school finance, but I know the basics, and I will try to explain.
All school districts are eligible for a set amount of funding for average daily attendance (ADA) from the state. This is called the revenue limit. However, if property taxes collected in the district would grant the district a larger amount than what it would get as a revenue-limit district, that district gets the overage. This kind of district is called a basic aid district.
Due to population in each district and different property values, some of our districts are basic aid — the high school, Ballard, College, Los Olivos and Vista — and some are revenue limit — Solvang and Buellton. If we were to unify any or all of the districts, it would remove the districts from basic aid and put them on revenue-limit status. Therefore, all districts would receive less money from the state, and that loss would exceed savings they would have by cutting back on administrative costs.
While I appreciate the desire to stop paying for bonds to do repairs and maintenance that perhaps should have been taken care of in a timely manner, the state has made it difficult to do that. Even though the state is supposed to give schools funds to maintain buildings and keep up with technology, it has been deferring those funds for years. They keep saying the schools will get them someday, but someday never comes, and in the meantime, schools are falling apart around us and our children don’t have access to technology they need to compete for jobs in the future.
Most of the state funds must go to teachers’ salaries, and those teachers have been sacrificing for years by forgoing raises just to keep their jobs. Many districts have had to cut jobs and make deep cuts to music, art and other important programs just to stay afloat.
At the same time, they are being required to keep raising the bar on student achievement, thanks to No Child Left Behind.
Valley schools have maintained a high quality of education, despite cuts they have had to make, but eventually they will not be able to do so.
I am so pleased that the voters of Buellton approved our bond measure in June, giving Buellton schools a chance to work more efficiently, and provide a better learning environment for students. Thank you for that support. I hope other districts in need will find a way to make things work, without sacrificing the things the students need.