Should the school district close Georgia Brown Elementary School?
–If proposed in a political and historical vacuum, the recommendation from the 711 Committee for the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District to consider closing Georgia Brown Elementary School would likely be met with less concern. While serving in city government, I never saw a neighborhood welcome a school closure, but this is different.
The school district is charged with providing a “free and appropriate education” (education code legal term of art) to all of our students. As taxpayers, we demand that the district provide this education to our students as efficiently as possible. There is a national trend of declining enrollment in public schools as the average family size gets smaller, due to people waiting longer to have children and simply the cost of having children. Any parent of school children can attest that they are expensive.
In Paso Robles, this national trend is exacerbated by a number of factors. According to data in the city’s housing element, there have been very few new homes built in the last 10 years and our population is getting older. We are a vacation and retirement destination. Anyone who has tried to buy a home in Paso recently has likely felt the disappointment of being out-bid by someone from Southern California or the Bay Area who is buying a second home or retirement home. The city has approved plans for the development of approximately 3,100 new homes, but that development will happen in the southern portion of the city.
The district is challenged with planning for the future educational needs of the community without sufficient funding to do everything we would like. That is simply the reality of living in California. Frankly, it is a reality of living almost anywhere in the U.S. We debate educational funding in every election cycle, but never address this systemic problem.
In one effort to increase available funds, the district empaneled a 711 Committee charged with making a recommendation for the possible use and/or sale of two currently vacant properties – the Montebello and Phillips properties. As part of the state-prescribed process for evaluating and selling school property, the 711 Committee reviewed the current condition and future expenditures of all the district’s school sites. It was determined that the district currently has the capacity to serve approximately 1,100 more elementary students than are enrolled. That coupled with projected declining enrollment led the committee to the conclusion that the district should consider closing an elementary school. After reviewing the needs, current projects and future projects to improve our existing elementary schools, the committee concluded that Georgia Brown would be the logical candidate for closure.
The rub is that we do not live in a political and historical vacuum. We live in an exciting moment in our history when communities of color are demanding their rightful seats at the table of decision making, regardless of the languages they speak. We live in a moment when we must acknowledge that our history has been written by those who have glossed over the broken promises and ugly truths of how minority populations have been exploited and mistreated. We are living in a moment when all Americans, regardless of background must be treated as unconditionally equal.
According to the school district demographic information, over 55% of the student population is Latino. Yet, the demographics of our school board and district leaders hardly mirror the demographics of our district. Somehow ensuring that our Latino residents have equal access to participation in board meetings and an elective high school course on ethnic studies are politically controversial. The district still struggles to meet state-mandated translation services for native Spanish-speaking parents. Helping your children be successful is hard enough when everything is written in your language. At this moment, considering closing Georgia Brown Elementary School is not a simple analysis.
Georgia Brown Elementary School is the neighborhood school for a large portion of our Latino elementary age students and the site of the district’s dual-immersion Spanish program. Like all schools, it is a community amenity and source of pride for the neighborhood. It is a venue for community meetings and provides recreational space.
The dual-immersion program carries with it a requirement of serving 50% native Spanish speakers. If Georgia Brown closes, her students would have to attend a different elementary school, potentially not within walking distance. How will the students be transported and for how long? What happens to the school site? What impact will the closure have on the desirability of the neighborhood? How can community members be sure that promises will be kept? Who should they hold accountable for those promises? What can be done to replace or preserve the community amenities the school provides?
These questions come at a time when some in our community still feel the sting of broken promises. For example, the district canceled a program geared to providing supplemental support for native Spanish-speaking students at Virginia Peterson Elementary School, after declining enrollment. It is not clear why enrolment declined, but it is possible that better communication with parents would have increased enrollment. While the district won a legal dispute over canceling the program, it lost trust among parents.
Recently, to meet budget constraints, the district had to cut transportation services. It is reasonable that parents would have apprehension about any offer to bus their kids out of the neighborhood, for fear that the service might be canceled.
Fortunately, no decisions related to Georgia Brown have been finalized. On January 26, the school board referred the 711 Committee recommendation to an instructional design committee, who will draft a recommendation for board consideration by the end of the year. The next step is a student housing/school boundary committee.
There is time for the district, and the Georgia Brown community to develop mutually satisfactory solutions. It is an opportunity for the caring, and well-meaning public servants at the district to show a community, all-too accustomed to being ignored, that this is not history repeating itself. However, in order for that message to have credibility, all residents’ voices must be heard by our leaders and in acknowledging the ugly truths and broken promises in our history we must embrace the leaders in our Latino community to ensure that the ugly truths of history forever exist only in our history.
Columnist Jim Cogan is the managing partner of 805AgTech Ventures, an agricultural technology accelerator, serving the needs of agtech startups. Cogan moved to Paso Robles in 2018. He previously served as assistant city manager in Paso Robles after nearly 20 years working for the cities of Menlo Park and San Jose.