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Staff photo, Shea Johnson
Students at Thomson Elementary head home after school Thursday. The school is one of two which could close after the school year depending on how the school board votes Tuesday.

Thomson, Hinkley schools' futures hang in balance

Tuesday's vote could bring lost jobs, longer commutes for some

STAFF WRITER
BUSD projected yearly revenue and expenditures:

2012/13 - $44.7 million in revenue, $49 million in expenditures

2013/14 - $43.1 million in revenue, $44.5 million in expenditures

2014/15 - $42.9 million in revenue, $45 million in expenditures

Source: Barstow Unified School District

“When it happens to a school, it can be very emotional. You put your life into your job.”

- Theresa Gonzales, principal of Thomson Elementary

BARSTOW• Thomson Elementary and Hinkley School will continue to operate as usual following this school year or they will be closed.

The decision will be made by the Barstow school board Tuesday as budget shortfalls and declining enrollment prompted a difficult response to help achieve fiscal responsibility.

Jeff Malan, superintendent of the Barstow Unified School District, put forth the recommendation of “reorganization” which, if passed, would eliminate both principal jobs and the positions of 15 to 20 teachers and 35 to 40 support personnel, he said.

While only Thomson and Hinkley lie in danger of closing, teachers from every elementary school in the district could lose their jobs to a more senior educator after they’re reassigned from either of the two schools under the plan.

The same goes for support personnel.

The ordeal is fanned by a state budget that only provides 77 cents to the dollar to BUSD in Proposition 98 funding, according to Tony Wardell, assistant superintendent of the school district.

“Bottom line is our expenses our greater than our revenue,” Wardell said, “which is why we have to make decisions we don’t want to.”

Current projections show Barstow-area schools, which routinely spend more than they take in (a fund balance reserve keeps them out of the red), running completely out of money by the 2015-16 school year if action isn’t taken.

“It makes fiscal sense to reconsolidate our resources,” Malan said. “Barstow Unified and the community have been in declining enrollment for approximately eight years. Our schools are not at capacity in terms of percentage of buildings that are used.”

Local elementary schools, in general, are 55 to 60 percent full, he said.

“We’re not utilizing full resources ... and we strain our resources when things are spread out.”

The recommendation on the table would provide the “most effective and efficient way to use resources and reduce costs,” according to Malan, who explained that the school district couldn’t “continue to operate in this fashion with the overhead.”

And while state budget cuts and deficit spending have encumbered the school district with finding more ways to be efficient, an equal burden could now fall onto its students — something neither principal at either of the two endangered schools thought was fair.

“I think it’s a sad situation that Hinkley and the community have been put through, by no fault of the residents out here,” Hinkley School Principal Larry Notario said. “There is nothing we can seem to do to overcome the predicament we’ve been put in.”

Enrollment at his school, which educates K-8 students, has dropped from roughly 600 during the mid-90s to 260 today. Notario sees the ongoing PG&E situation — as local residents opt to accept buyouts from the corporation and move elsewhere — as a large contributing factor.

“Nobody wants to be where there is bad water,” he said. “Clean water goes back to the Stone Age, so you just assume it’s always there — unfortunately, it’s not.”

While Notario said he understood why reorganization may be necessary, he spoke of at least one major drawback.

At Hinkley School, some students have a commute upward of 50 minutes, he said, which would only become longer for the middle-school-aged kids if they were required to enroll at Barstow Junior High, which is much farther away.

Commenters on the Desert Dispatch website had similar feelings.

“My oldest has been going to Hinkley since Kindergarten and is now in 6th grade,” Lorraine Rodriguez-Vidales wrote. “She loves that school, knows all the teachers and does not want to attend the Junior High.”

“If Hinkley closes, how long a day would the kids have if they had to travel into town,” Susan Grant wrote. “And how much would the fuel cost be? ... So here goes the courthouse, schools, etc. What’s next?”

Students at Thomson wouldn’t have as far to go as those in Hinkley, but it wouldn’t ease the disappointment, according to Principal Theresa Gonzales.

“When it happens to a school, it can be very emotional,” she said. “You put your life into your job.”

Gonzales was “not at all” surprised by the news, she said, which was delivered to staff at both schools Wednesday. Thomson is not unfamiliar to talks of potential closures, having already been saved by the school board at least once before.

She, like Notario, understands why reorganization was deemed an option.

“It’s all about keeping the district solvent; it’s what we all want,” she said.

The topic of declining enrollment prompted Malan to suggest the local economy has also played “a big role.”

“Jobs are not available or attracting people to the community,” he said.

A report prepared in May 2011 by Southern California Associated Governments (SCAG) Regional Council showed that Barstow’s 7.2 population growth between 2000 to 2010 was much less than the 19 percent rate experienced by San Bernardino County as a whole.

And the age group 5 to 20 was expected to experience the greatest decline (2.5 percent) in the city between 2000 and 2015, according to the report.

Community meetings are scheduled Friday to discuss the possible closures of each school: 5:30 p.m. in the multi-purpose room at Thomson; 7 p.m. in the multi-purpose room at Hinkley School. Anyone can attend.

Malan called parent feedback “vital” and explained that Tuesday’s school board vote could result in the group changing the recommendation or looking at other options.

Shea Johnson may be reached at (760) 256-4126 or at SJohnson@DesertDispatch.com.


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