There was nothing easy about the decisions being made at the Hope School District School Board meeting Monday night, as evidenced by the hard looks on the faces of Board President Todd Sosna (left), Superintendent Gerrie Fausett (middle), and boardmember Elizabeth Owen.
Paul Wellman

With tough finance decisions, pink slips, displaced students, and a possible school closure in their wake, the first local repercussions of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s budget-cuts bomb were felt this week in the Hope Elementary School District. The three-school, 1,177-student Hope District was forced to translate the implications of the governor’s proposed billions of dollars’ worth of state-wide education cuts to the staff, personnel, and pupils at the Hope, Vieja Valley, and Monte Vista campuses.

Long an academically acclaimed and fundraiser-heavy refuge for white parents and kids fleeing the elementary schools of Santa Barbara School District, the Hope Board of Trustees, looking to remedy approximately $400,000 of deficit for the upcoming year, voted 3-to-2 Monday night in favor of kicking out at least 142 inter-district transfer students for the 2008-09 school year. “In-district families have a long-term stake in this district that out-of-district families don’t,” said Todd Sosna, board president. “I simply believe that we have too many kids that we’re trying to educate with too little money.”

Not everyone agreed with Sosna and the other boardmembers who voted in favor of sending the interlopers packing. Most of the several-hundred-strong, standing-room-only crowd that attended the five-hour, tear-soaked marathon meeting were not willing to sacrifice nearly a tenth of the tight-knit district’s student body in the name of financial prudence.

In a remarkable feat of fundraising, a five-day grass-roots effort spearheaded by in-district parent Sharon Allen secured $180,000 worth of donations in the hope of bringing all Hope District students and teachers back next year. The donation was the source of a brief respite for the audience and the heavy-hearted boardmembers. In the end, though, boardmembers said the extra dough was not enough to maintain the status quo, especially in light of projected years of budget woes, other potential cuts to programs and staff, and a unanimous refusal to change the district’s coveted small teacher-to-student ratios. “These financial circumstances are not going to be resolved by fundraising alone,” said Sosna, proving correct a prophecy spoken earlier that night by Boardmember Tony Winterbauer, “Make no mistake: There will be no winners tonight.”

While it is certainly true that the tough choices made by the Hope District this week “would not be happening if our state had done its job,” as Superintendent Gerrie Fausett put it, Monday’s midnight vote closes a debate that has been plaguing parents, administrators, and students alike in the Hope District for several years now. Since the district’s inception, proponents aggressively recruited families in the Santa Barbara School District to jump ship and bring their money with them.

This continued until the spring of 2006, when the district decided to effectively build a fence around their increasingly cash-strapped educational Eden and stop accepting out-of-district transfers. Though unpopular at the time, when roughly 400 of the 1,300 Hope District students hailed from outside district boundaries, the choice was made in order to attain Basic Aid funding status, which allows school district funding to be drawn directly from property taxes in the district rather than dollars associated with average daily attendance numbers. In fiscally challenging times, Basic Aid-especially for a district that includes big money properties such as Hope Ranch’s-is a potential lifesaver. And it appears that the district will have said status by fall 2008. With that decision in March 2006, administrators promised parents of transfer students that those already admitted would still be able to matriculate.

All that changed with this week’s vote, much to the displeasure of some parents who felt “betrayed” and “used” by the district, though the board did allow 64 transfers enrolled in next year’s 6th grade class to stay. (Should funding and space allow it, these students’ siblings and children of full-time faculty will also be allowed to remain.)

The district is also looking into letting go teachers, instructional aides, custodians, and librarians, as well as slashing funding to GATE programs, counselors, and health instructors. With county and state laws forcing them to balance their books well before the governor’s proposed cuts are ratified into reality-something that may not occur until late this summer-a sliver of hope remains that perhaps some of the cuts may be restored.

A last-minute save of the booted transfers seems unlikely, however. As Fausett stated and as school administrators all over the state can relate to right now, “This is not a one-year problem. We have no way of knowing what more the state may have in store for us.”


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