Bill to restore funding for rural small schools in 'suspense' file

Two local schools are bracing for potential cuts in staff and programs after a one-sentence change to the state Education Code during last year's budget process caused the districts to lose thousands in special funding from the state.

A bill that would restore "necessary small schools" funding – which supports districts operating small rural campuses – was put in a suspension file on Wednesday, pending further review by the Assembly Appropriations Committee.

"Whenever a bill goes to the Assembly Appropriations Committee, if the bill has a fiscal cost greater than $150,000 it is held in the committee – placed on "suspense" – until the budget picture is clearer after the governor releases his May revisions," said Andrew Bird, spokesman for Assemblyman Wesley Chesbro, who introduced the bill.

Humboldt County Office of Education Director of Fiscal Services Lynette Kerr said there are 18 local campuses — 15 elementary and three high schools — that qualify for the necessary small schools funding program.

Garfield School and Ferndale High School are losing the funding because of their proximity to other campuses — Freshwater School and Fortuna High School, respectively.

"Necessary small schools are based on three criteria: enrollment size, distance from the other school and how far students have to travel," Kerr said. "The change that impacted schools in the county was taking out references to being a single school district or the only high school in a unified district."

Ferndale Unified School District Superintendent Jack Lakin said if the bill isn't passed, Ferndale will lose $267,962 every year for the next four years, but the district has enough in its reserve to offset the loss for next year — and possibly two more.

"Our hope is that this legislation is passed, because if not, districts will need to have serious discussions on possibly reducing the number of staff and services — like athletics and other extracurricular activities," Lakin said. "If it does pass, it will allow us to qualify for small schools funding again and would give the district a huge boost to continue providing for students."

Lakin said the committee's move to place the bill in a suspense file was an expected part of the legislative process.

"The whole 'suspense file' sounds ominous, but it really isn't," Lakin said. "When we were at the Education Committee hearing, we anticipated that this would be the next step."

Kerr said it's hard to know what schools could be in danger of losing funding next year, especially if Chesbro's bill isn't passed.

"This uncertainty adds one more benchmark, one more thing that districts have to track, including where students live and how far they are from other schools," she said.

Lakin said the one sentence deleted from the Education Code that affected local schools was made out of a concern for the way it was written.

"AB 1946 restores this language and adds a clarification that the funding is for rural small schools, not for small urban schools," Lakin said.

Garfield School was founded in 1884 – in what was then known as Wrangletown — and was dedicate as a historical landmark in 1994 by the Native Sons of the Golden West.

District Superintendent Barbara McMahon said this will be the first time in her 32 years that the district has to operate without the funding.

"I think what hit us the hardest was the loss of prior year guarantee — which means that if you took a hit to enrollment, you still had the same funding from the previous year," said McMahon, adding that the school will receive funding based on Average Daily Attendance next year. "With necessary small schools funding, you get a certain amount of money per block of students — with ranges from 0 to 25, 25 to 50, 50 to 75 and 75 to 100 — and now we're on per student funding."

There are currently 54 students at Garfield and Kerr said the school won't lose money this year, but would see a loss of $22,000 every year from here on out.

"Garfield usually averages around 60 students, so if that number holds, they don't stand to lose too much," Kerr said. "If there's a swing in enrollment, however, that number will change."

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