GOLETA, Calif. — The Barbie and Winnie the Pooh backpacks are gone from the outdoor coat racks at El Rancho Elementary School, and classroom doors are locked -- but not just for summer vacation. El Rancho will not reopen in the fall because the number of students in Goleta schools has been steadily declining.
The decision to shutter this 320-student campus has roiled the otherwise quiet Santa Barbara County neighborhood in the shadow of the Los Padres mountains. Children are disoriented, parents say they feel betrayed, and administrators remain stressed by the painful process.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 12, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 50 words Type of Material: Correction
School closure -- An article in Monday's Section A on public school closures due to declining enrollment and budget cuts incorrectly reported that Vista Verde School, a kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Irvine, had closed recently. The school board voted in April to close the campus, but not until 2006.
Such difficult choices are becoming more common in California, driven largely by a 15% drop in birthrates in the 1990s, and exacerbated by state budget cuts and prohibitive housing costs. Although some urban districts such as Los Angeles Unified are still expanding, and struggling to find room for a growing number of immigrant children, about half the school districts in California are experiencing significant declines in enrollment, education officials said. Fewer students translates to fewer state dollars, at a time when the budget crisis has already reduced aid to many districts, and prompts moves to close schools to save money.
In the last school year, 57 California public schools -- mainly rural and suburban elementary campuses with enrollment dips -- were closed at least temporarily, compared with just six the year before, according to the state Department of Education. There are 7,490 public schools in the state.
Although they could not offer specific figures, education officials and demographers predicted that the number of closures would increase over the next two years because of enrollment declines. Some districts are trying to avoid the unpopular decision to close schools by moving to combine grade levels or postpone construction.
"It's going to get worse. I think we'll see more closures because the budget cuts are going to hit harder next year and enrollments are continuing to decline," said Shelley Lapkoff, a demographer who specializes in enrollment forecasts throughout the state.
In Goleta, a chocolate brown wooden sign with the words "El Rancho School" printed in white letters, greets visitors. The cluster of one-story buildings, painted in fresh shades of forest green and eggshell white, is on a cul de sac in a quiet neighborhood. After school, parents once walked their children home.
Susan Portier was among the parents who fought unsuccessfully to keep the neighborhood school, protesting that close friends will be split up among several campuses.
"I moved here for this school. It's an outstanding school," said Portier, a mother whose 5-year-old daughter will have to ride a bus to another campus in the fall. "She'll have to make new friends and she's very shy. Why do we have to uproot kids?"
The district says " 'it increases efficiency,' " she said. "How does this increase efficiency? This isn't the Ford Motor Co."
Ida Rickborn, superintendent of the 4,100-student Goleta Union Elementary District, said the district has seen enrollment decline 5% to 9% over the last few years. Closing El Rancho will save $300,000, money that could preserve small class sizes elsewhere, she said. The campus will be either leased, sold or mothballed.
"People become very, very attached to their schools. It's an important institution in their communities," she said. "But I am not sure they understand the depth of need of the district."
Elsewhere in the state, Vacaville and Eureka city school boards in Northern California, as well as Capistrano and Irvine in Orange County, are among those closing schools in the fall. Santa Cruz and Southern Humboldt County districts are discussing similar plans.
Pam Lindstrom, a principal at Worthington Elementary School in the Eureka City School District, plans to retire now that her campus will be out of business this fall.
"There is the sense of sadness, really facing that we won't be working together as a staff again," Lindstrom said. "So we're dealing with it one day at a time."
Masy Adnani, a mother of two students who attended Vista Verde in Irvine Unified, which recently closed, said she loved the small school that was seven minutes from home. Adnani and her husband attended every board meeting to protest the closure and the much longer rides their children face.
"We are not happy; I don't know what we will do. We have no choice. I guess we have to follow what they tell us to do," she said. "We fought it, but nobody listened to us. We fought it so hard."
Enrollment has declined in almost half of California's districts, according to the California Counties Superintendents Assn.