The schools of Sierra Unified have a long tradition of academic and career-educational excellence, serving students and families in our unique, mountain community. Our young students continue to experience a variety of learning opportunities in the classroom, technical labs, and on the playing fields. These experiences lead to acceptance into the finest universities, military, and trades, affording our graduates opportunities in which we can all take great pride. It is our intent and our purpose to ensure that the well-established traditions of Sierra Unified Schools are as viable for future generations as they were for so many of you. Please allow me to share our current status and assure you that with careful planning and a vigilant dedication to good stewardship, there is a real path to a strong, stable future for Sierra Unified.
As many of you know, Sierra has contended with years of unfavorable economic conditions. These conditions include a large facilities debt, prolonged declining enrollment, and an economic crisis of epic proportions at the local, state, and national levels. In the past four years, state funding shortfalls to our district total $8.4 million. These shortages, combined with an outstanding debt of approximately $5.2 million, and continued state funding deficits for schools, put the ability of our district to continue to serve this community in peril without the implementation of carefully executed steps. Since 2008, Sierra Unified has taken major measures to deal with this crisis. We have cut 38% of our operating budget, and eliminated 99 employee positions. We have consolidated classes from four to two campuses. We have also campaigned three times for the passage of a general obligation bond for the purpose of eliminating the facility debt; three times we were unable to garner the 55% required for approval. Heading into this year, more changes were needed to balance the budget. Thankfully, earlier state proposals to cut home-school transportation funding were blocked, averting a true worst-case scenario. With that cut off the table, our intent is to continue on a path to pay off the facility debt keeping with the original commitment, $1.1M per year through 2017. This requires continued changes for our district. I will outline these changes, and let you know what you can expect from us in the upcoming year.
But first, let’s look back. It has been said that if we don’t know our history, we are condemned to repeat it. In the past, funding was solid. Even after the changes in school finance brought about by Proposition 13, there was a brief window of opportunity to capitalize on the very generous funding level of neighboring districts. In a complex set of legal maneuvers, which included the formation of the short-lived Golden Hills district in 1992, Sierra Unified was born with one of the highest per student funding structures in California. Some years later there was a legal settlement from Minarets school district resulting in a payment of nearly 4 million dollars. Our community was growing, and with the community growth, the elementary schools were becoming overcrowded. It was in a climate of these very favorable growth conditions and generous school funding that a decision was made to build the middle school out of the general fund. In the vast majority of cases, new school facilities are built through proceeds from bond sales.
In 1997, just two years after the completion of the Foothill Middle School facility, enrollment started to decline, and has done so every year since. The decline has had as much to do with the shift in employment opportunities in the mountain communities – logging in particular, as it does the expansion of other districts, such as Yosemite, then Golden Valley, Clovis Unified, and finally, Chawanakee. It used to be that far more students transferred into Sierra Unified than out. That too has changed. Liberty High School reconfigured from a grade 7-12 school to a traditional 9-12 high school and stopped allowing open enrollment into Sierra Unified. Chawanakee Unified came on line soon after, drawing students from North Fork. Clovis has always had a strict policy for transfers out of their district, and in recent years has marketed a very effective work-place residency program. As Sierra Unified began making cuts to address the funding shortfalls, parents began more and more frequently to take their students with them to attend school in the district of their work – mostly Clovis. Concerns for the future financial health of the district and rumors about the impending elimination of programs have in reality worked to worsen the district’s budget issues. Parents, legitimately concerned about the stability of the district sought to “go now” rather than risk disaster that may lay ahead.