Staff and Students Rally Against Proposed School Campus Merger
by Ethan Stewart
More than two hours of passionate public comment kicked off this week’s Santa Barbara School District board meeting, as dozens of faculty, students, and parents from La Cumbre Junior High turned out to fight for the future of their school. Faced with a recent board decision giving “conceptual approval” to a plan that would relocate the Santa Barbara Community Academy (SBCA) elementary school to the La Cumbre campus, a faculty-led movement crashed the open mike, in which the public largely decried the numerous difficulties and pitfalls associated with the planned merger. While the district sees the plan as a way of simultaneously utilizing open classrooms at the under-enrolled La Cumbre and reuniting the academy — which now splits its students between two campuses, with grades four through six at La Cumbre and grades kindergarten through third downtown — opponents consider the proposed campus colocation a recipe for disaster that is sure to stymie the recent string of successes at the long-suffering La Cumbre school.
“This is not sound educational decision making,” lamented La Cumbre teacher Laura Baker on Tuesday night. To Baker and her colleagues, the merger — which was voted on at a whirlwind Faculties Master Plan update meeting in late August — is a hasty decision that would result in a logistical nightmare including eighth-graders sharing bathrooms with first-graders, intolerable noise levels in hallways, serious traffic issues for surrounding neighborhoods, lunchtime chaos, and possible cutbacks in La Cumbre’s esteemed and space-consuming science and technology program.
Adding further fuel to the opposition’s argument is the fact that La Cumbre, after years of white flight syndrome and diminishing enrollments, actually posted the only upswing in secondary school enrollment in the entire district this year with 80 new students, a nearly 20 percent increase from last year. La Cumbre’s new principal Jo Ann Caines — a longtime Santa Barbara district administrative star — figures into this upswing in no small way. Under her tenure, the school saw a marked improvement in its Academic Performance Index (API) this year, with overall performance results up, as well as improvements in the performance of Latino and socioeconomically challenged students. The faculty wants a chance to continue making improvements, but fears that the full SBCA coming on campus will scare away prospective students and put a cap on La Cumbre’s enrollment capacity. Or, as eighth-grader Paul Mercurio stated Tuesday night, “It’s unfair that just as Ms. Caines is turning our school around, you are trying to hold us back.”
Boardmembers and district Superintendent Brian Sarvis were unable to officially respond to the many public comments Tuesday night, as the item was not on the agenda. Sarvis explained the situation was still “very much up in the air,” but quickly added that the bottom line remains that “La Cumbre is a campus with room for well over 1,000 students, and it’s only at about half its capacity right now.” According to Sarvis, La Cumbre has a total of 53 classrooms, with only about 30 of them occupied on a daily basis by the junior high and grades 4-6 of the SBCA combined. Baker disputes this number, claiming that La Cumbre actually has a total of about 40 classrooms and that all of them are used at least a few periods per day.
The board is not expected to make a final decision on the matter for at least a few months, during which time its staff will look into the various budget implications of the merger. While Sarvis promised this week that many more chances for public input lie ahead, it remains to be seen how a district with an elementary budget that has little or no surplus cash, declining enrollments, and a similarly cash-strapped high school budget could ever afford the facility retrofitting that a joint La Cumbre and SBCA campus would require.