Louis Freedberg/California WatchStudents eat lunch at Pacific Valley School, a "necessary small school" south of Carmel.
In some very small schools in remote parts of California, the state is paying about $200,000 per student to educate them.
That's according to a report released yesterday by the Legislative Analyst's Office.
The main thrust of the report is to throw cold water on the idea that consolidating some of the hundreds of small school districts in California – those with student enrollments of less than 1,000 – would result in substantial savings to the state. The report recommends that the state increase the minimum size of districts to 100 students and remove a range of disincentives that discourage smaller districts from consolidating.
But the report also provides insight into the state's tiniest schools and school districts. During an extreme fiscal crisis like the one the state is currently facing, the question arises as to whether California can afford to provide an education to every student in every corner of the state. Some of the smallest schools are in remote areas, including the High Sierra, coastal communities and the parched Imperial Valley.
In some of these regions, 144 of the state's nearly 1,000 school districts receive funds for schools that are designated "necessary small schools," some of whose enrollments are in the single digits. The Pacific Unified School District on an isolated stretch of the Highway One half way between Carmel and Cambria, consists of a single K-12 school, Pacific Valley School, with a total enrollment of 12 students.
It is an expensive proposition, because regardless how many students are in a classroom, teachers are needed to teach them. And there are considerable overhead costs. Yet the state doesn't have much of a choice. Under California law, the state is required to provide every student with an education, and students are required to attend school.
Raeanna Thomasson, who does triple duty as superintendent, principal and teacher at the Pacific Unified School District, said the LAO's recommendation to require every district to have a minimum of 100 students would effectively shut down her school. "We would not be able to consolidate our district (with another) because we are not close to another district," she wrote in an email.
Louis Freedberg/California WatchPacific Valley School is situated directly on Highway 1 south of Carmel.
Under the state's extraordinarily complicated school financing system, the smallest elementary schools receive a supplement of $138,000 for every 24 elementary students enrolled – whether the school has one or 24 students on its attendance rolls.
High schools with up to 19 students and three teachers receive about $500,000, also regardless of whether one or 19 students are enrolled.
Peculiarly, the state education code, which runs thousands of pages long, does not prescribe the minimum number of students a school needs to receive state support.
That is why Mountain High School in Pinecrest in the Summerville Union High School District in Tuolumne County – with a total enrollment of two – gets a "necessary small school supplement" of $194,000 per student. So does South Fork High School in the same district. Cold Springs High, another district school in the hamlet of Long Barn in Stanislaus National Forest, has an enrollment of three. In addition to the supplemental funds, the state last year paid about $6,000 in base funding per student (generally referred to as "revenue limit" funding).
"We get a flat rate," said John Keiter, superintendent of the Summerville Union High School District, referring to the small school supplement. "The size (of the school) is independent of how much money the state gives us. Sometimes we have some excess funds, and we use them for other needs in the district."
Depending on where they live, Keiter said that if his district's tiny high schools did not exist it would take their students two to three hours in daily travel time to reach the district's much larger comprehensive high school, Summerville High, with an enrollment of 490 students, located in the town of Tuolumne in Gold Country on the edge of Yosemite. And his district would probably be required to provide transportation, which would also be expensive.
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 last year 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 $25 billion budget deficit.
At the very least, the report suggests in unusually guarded language, the state Legislature should "consider instituting a minimum threshold for school size" of perhaps 20 students. "There is a persuasive rationale for why some remote schools are necessarily small – and therefore costly," the report concludes. "However, we remain uncertain as to whether some schools might also be too small."
Keiter questioned whether analysts in Sacramento should be expressing opinions on districts they have never visited.
"My concern is that when someone who does not live in our district decides this is the way school districts ought to be, or that they should be a certain size," he said. "I don't know if that is an appropriate position for them to take."