March 21, 2013: Dunsmuir Joint Union High School District is located in the town of Dunsmuir, population 1,650 (that would be the town; the projected ADA for the consolidated, single-K-12 school district [SSD] in '13-'14 is 78). Dunsmuir is located on Interstate 5 (which becomes, at that point, the Cascade Wonderland Highway) in Siskiyou County - the middle county at the top of the state abutting the Oregon border (to its left, looking north, is tiny Del Norte, on the coast; to its right, Modoc). Dunsmuir in the shadow of glorious, 14k-foot Mount Shasta -- a volcano that is now erupting every 600 years (most recently, 1786).
The geography lesson is important -- particularly in a discussion of equities in public education. As the district describes itself [emphasis ours]: "[We] face a tremendous challenge as we navigate the gauntlet of budget cuts, declining enrollment, a dismal (local, state and national) economy, and the every-increasing expectations of state and federal policy makers. Because we are the hub of our community, providing ...its primary source of academics, athletics, performing and visual arts, we carry a tremendous responsibility to maintain programs..."
So, things were tough before Governor Brown's proposed '13-'14 budget tackled the traditional funding language for the rural schools like Dunsmuir (10% of the total districts in the state have fewer than 100 students) - the schools defined in the Education Code as "Necessary Small Schools."
The California Education Code Section 42283 sets the criteria for the special funding for Necessary Small Schools (Average Daily Attendance -- ADA -- funding would not provide sufficient monies to operate an NSS); this criteria specifies an ADA of less than 101 pupils and stipulates distances from "the nearest other public elementary school" and "topographical or other conditions exist in a district which would impose unusual hardships" to get to school.
This year, the language defining NSS was changed. It appeared in a trailer bill attached to the Governor's '13-'14 budget proposal; the changes alter the funding under which Dunsmuir High, and many other NSS schools, survive.
As reported by Richard DuPertuis and Skye Kinkade in the Mt. Shasta News:
Many schools currently receive NSS funding by virtue of being a school district consisting of a single school, not because they are geographically isolated, according to a 2011 report by the California Legislative Analyst Office. The Governor’s proposal changes the definition for NSS [so] that only geographically isolated schools would be eligible for the additional funds.
This means small schools with fewer than 100 students which are also fewer than 15 miles away from another school district would no longer qualify as an Necessary Small School. Under the proposal, this determination, which is currently made by [Siskiyou County Superintendent of Schools Kermith] Walters’ office, would be transferred to the State Superintendent of Public Instruction. (Other Siskiyou schools which could be affected include McCloud Elementary and McCloud High School, as well as Bogus, Delphic, Gazelle, Grenada, Hornbrook, Little Shasta, Seiad and Willow Creek elementary schools, according to Walters.)
Dunsmuir High...could lose its [NSS] status, [DJUHSD] principal/superintendent Len Foreman, at left, told the DJUHSD board during its March 13 meeting. Throwing up his hands, he said, “We would have no funding for the 2014-15 year.”
In a follow up interview [March 18], Walters emphasized these changes are not set in stone and are only a possibility of what could happen if the trailer bills are passed as part of the budget. The most frustrating thing, Walters said, is there is little clarity in the language.
“We don’t know if this would mean these schools would be allowed to continue operating on ADA (Average Daily Attendance) funding, or if they would be closed and consolidated. We don’t know when this would go into effect – next year? We have a lot of unanswered questions.”...
...Foreman said he is frustrated by the state not taking into account the school's performance, stating, “We are fiscally solvent, our school board works well with us, our API scores are great, but academic accomplishment doesn't have anything to with it.”
And how much impact would significant funding changes for Necessary Small Schools have on the state budget? An article by Louis Freedberg on CaliforniaWatch (May 3, 2011) states: [Summerville Union High School District John] Keiter also questioned how much money the state would save if it shut down "necessary small schools." In fact, the Legislative Analyst's report indicates that the state [in 2010] paid an extra $39 million in supplements to the 144 districts with these very small schools – an amount that would have no negligible impact in reducing the state's [then, pre the passage of Proposition 30] $25 billion budget deficit.
In his interview with Freedberg, Summerville's Keitner also commented that if the funds provided by the state for his NSS district resulted in a surplus for the budget, the funds were special "on other needs in the district." Arguably -- and many educators are now making this argument -- needs that often public school teachers and administrators are in the front lines to detect. Then question, then, is: what is the role of public schools, regardless of size, in the community? As Dunsmuir notes, the activities of its school form the social and cultural "hub of the community." Interestingly, as the concept of "community" schools becomes stronger and stronger in urban areas, the historical reality of community schools in rural areas -- and the state's greater responsibility to its citizenry in defining the purpose of public education -- is forgotten.
--Wendy Lestina, Editor, California's Children.