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Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on January 6th, 2011, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 11, Issue 43 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 11, Issue 43

For whom the bell tolled

Orcutt Union School District allows Orcutt Academy to move into May Grisham to gain a financial upper hand, despite parental outcry

By HENRY HOUSTON


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

May Grisham sits in Old Orcutt, surrounded by rustic foliage and a neighborhood that calls to mind an episode of Leave it to Beaver. You half expect to see Wally tossing around a football in the street.

It also sits next to the Orcutt Union School District (OUSD) office, Orcutt Junior High School, and a growing high school known as Orcutt Academy.

The elementary school itself has been an institution for decades: It’s named after a teacher who served in the district for 46 years, according to superintendent Bob Bush, who’s writing a history of the Orcutt Union School District’s schools for the Orcutt Pioneer.

“She was my fourth grade teacher,” Bush recalled. “And my dad’s.”

Her photo hangs in the multi-use room at her namesake campus, which won’t be her namesake much longer.

In the fall semester of 2011, the district’s second oldest elementary school—and Old Orcutt’s only elementary school—will close its doors. They’ll re-open again, but the campus will have a new identity: Orcutt Academy.

As for the future, Bush has made a commitment to keep the historic name alive somewhere. The preschool on the campus will most likely carry on the legacy of the May Grisham name.

Thinking ahead

A superintendent’s tenure is like chess, and that’s how Bush plays it: five steps ahead of the game. And in such a strategic game, some sacrifice is necessary on the path to victory.


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

The district originally planned to allow Orcutt Academy, which met behind Orcutt Junior High School, to branch out into the district office’s. But when it dawned on the planners that the offices didn’t comply with American with Disabilities Act requirements for a school, a new strategy had to come into play.

There were a lot of possible plans, Bush said, one of which was to let the school take over the Pine Grove campus, a move that carried around $1.6 million in conversion costs. The charter school continued to grow in its temporary home, so in 2008 the district built a biology lab in the back of Orcutt Junior High School, where the academy held classes while awaiting a more permanent place to study. The lab building also included restrooms, so the academy students could stay separate from the junior high students.

While all this was happening, a shrinking state budget triggered headaches in school districts around California. At a Dec. 15, 2010, school board meeting, Bush reported, “Over the last three years, the OUSD has had a reduction of $12 million in state revenues.” Adding to that pain, though Orcutt Academy is filling up with freshmen to seniors, overall district enrollment has dwindled.

“We can’t operate schools at half capacity,” Bush said.

The district loss can be attributed to changing demographics, he said.

“There aren’t a lot of jobs, and there aren’t any young families moving in,” he explained. “It’s becoming a retirement town.”

Also, the Santa Maria-Bonita School District has stopped allowing transfers to the Orcutt district—something “they have every right to do,” Bush admitted.

On Nov. 23, 2010, “Scenario 12” came before the board. The idea was to spend $388,711 to tweak the May Grisham campus to make it high school compatible for Orcutt Academy—a move that would ultimately save the district about $300,000 a year.

The board unanimously passed Scenario 12 less than a month later.

The academy students would get a home, and the district would gain financial ground. Not everyone, however, was happy with the choice.

A group called Save May Grisham formed in an effort to stave off the change. There’s even been talk of recalling schoolboard members. One parent summed up the opposition sentiment during public comment time at the board’s Dec. 15 meeting: “All problems in the district are because of Orcutt Academy.”

Board trustee Bob Hatch disagreed.

“If it weren’t for Orcutt Academy,” he disputed, “we would be talking about closing one or two schools instead.”

Bush said Scenario 12 aimed to avoid the carnage decimating neighboring school districts.

“While [districts] around us have closed schools—Lompoc and San Luis Obispo—or instituted furlough days—Lompoc, San Luis, and Santa Maria High School—[the district] has been able to use one-time money to keep the district solvent during these tough budget times,” he said in his speech presenting the scenario. “Even though the charter program has grown and is quite successful, the district continues to have over 1,000 empty seats in our eight schools.”

According to estimates by the district, construction will start at May Grisham on Aug. 5, two weeks before school starts, and is scheduled to end on Oct. 4.

Students at May Grisham whose parents haven’t asked for specific school placement will be notified of their new campuses in mid-March.


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

For and against

Since making their decision, the OUSD Board of Trustees and Bob Bush have heard a lot of dissent from parents of May Grisham students, but Bush thinks such outcry would have been unavoidable, no matter the campus.

The Save May Grisham organization has obtained a lawyer, Karen O’Neil, to aid in legal proceedings concerning the May Grisham closure and a possible trustee recall.

The group is also investigating whether the district violated the Brown Act, public-meeting legislation that, among other things, bans informal and undisclosed meetings held by school boards.

Bush refuted the possibility of any Brown Act violations.

“We posted all of the meeting dates,” he said.

He also believes a recall is unnecessary because the board was doing its job by ensuring the financial solvency of the district.

“The reorganization is because of financial issues,” he said. “The state’s hurting, and we’ve lost a lot of kids.”

He also questioned the justification behind recalling the district’s trustees.


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

“Our board did nothing wrong,” he said, adding that the general public approves of the board line-up because voters reelected three members (Bob Hatch, Rob Buchanan, and Jim Peterson) in the 2010 election.

Hayley Kelman, who is a part of the Save May Grisham organization, has a first grader currently attending May Grisham and two other children who would have attended when they were older. She feels May Grisham was targeted despite the fact that it placed second in the district—behind Ralph Dunlap—in the most recent test scores.

“If May Grisham was unsuccessful, it’d be understandable. But it’s one of the best schools. It’s a model school,” she said. “Why bench one of your best players? They should be rewarded, not shut down.”

Danielle Rivera, also with Save May Grisham, helped develop an alternate proposal, known as “Scenario 20,” which proposed the academy use the classrooms and gym it’s already used, while fundraising to generate cash for its own space. No kids would have to be displaced. She gave that scenario to the board in the days before its Dec. 15 meeting, but Bush said they didn’t have much time to consider that option—which irks Kelman, Rivera, and other parents, who felt they had little time to develop their scenario.

Although Kelman is frustrated with the OUSD Board of Trustees for choosing Scenario 12, she’s not telling her first grader too much of the situation.

“I’m sheltering her,” Kelman said. “I don’t show her our emotions, and I am putting a positive spin on the situation. I’m telling her: ‘It will be great in the end.’ Because it will.”

And although she’s keeping her disapproving opinions away from her children, she’s still a part of trying to bring the public into the matter. Legal actions are costly, however, and a recall attempt would be exhausting since it would require a lot of signatures from the community.

“We’re just stay-at-home moms,” she said. “We don’t have spare time—it’s difficult.”

Considering the trustees’ hopes that the academy will save the district more than $1 million in five years, Kelman has hopes of her own: that the money will be used wisely.

In an open request to the district, she asked: “Can you put that to make the class sizes smaller? Rehire P.E.

teachers and music teachers?”


PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER

The legacy

“This is my school,” Thomas Brown said during a telephone interview.

Brown was a teacher at May Grisham for 10 years, but was laid off and now works part time.

In addition to teaching at May Grisham, Brown has been active in leading the chess club, leading the after-school acting club, and acting as the DJ in charge during school activities.

For Brown, though, the line separating teacher and parent has grown increasingly blurry.

“It’s where my kids were,” he said, “and it’s a great school with a great community.”

He hasn’t shown animosity toward the Board of Trustees for their vote, though he’s upset at the loss of the school as an elementary school. Still, he doesn’t worry about the loss of a great education in the district. The teachers are going to follow the May Grisham students, he reassured.

His eldest daughter, who now attends Orcutt Academy, also attended the elementary school where the academy will make its home.

“She is very excited about coming back to May Grisham,” Brown said.

Another of Brown’s daughters, however, won’t be completing her education at May Grisham Elementary. She’ll be transferred to Patterson.

Intern Henry Houston can be contacted at intern@santamariasun.com.




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