Blackstone residents, district clash over school’s future
Each year that Valley View Elementary in the Blackstone community doesn’t open, residents say they grow more frustrated.
Residents agree that they want to see children at the neighborhood school built in 2013 by the Buckeye Union School District. What kind of school it should become is where they disagree.
While the BUSD average is .45 school-age children per household, year after year exhaustive outreach efforts to register students for Valley View have proven there just aren’t enough children in the Blackstone community, which is now 75 percent built out at 800 homes occupied, to open doors as a traditional kindergarten through fifth-grade school, according to BUSD officials
Staff instead proposes to move the BUSD-run Blue Oak Charter Montessori, which shares a campus with traditional Blue Oak Elementary in Cameron Park, to the Valley View campus and eventually expand the school to serve students through eighth grade. If the plan was approved, it would open in August 2017 as a kindergarten through sixth-grade school.
If the school were to open as a traditional K-5 school, as was originally planned, the district would lose money to operate it, which would in turn impact all of the other district schools, Superintendent David Roth explained.
“The district can only reasonably count on 130 students to start the 2017-18 school year,” he said. “The differential costs of serving those students at Valley View versus continuing to serve them primarily at our Brooks Elementary School site would be approximately $450,000 more than the revenue that would be collected from the state for those same students.
“Based on our demographic reports and history with enrollment from the community, we project that this type of spending will be in place for a few years, which will diminish district resources and have a corresponding adverse impact on all of the students in the Buckeye Union School District,” Roth continued. “It simply is not financially prudent or equitable to spend district resources in this manner on such a small portion of the district’s 4,700 students.”
Roth also noted Gov. Jerry Brown’s recently released 2017-18 budget proposal, if passed, would also result in a reduction of approximately $800,000 to BUSD’s projected ongoing revenue for the 2017-18 school year and that BUSD’s contribution to employee pensions is increasing by more than $400,000 per year for the foreseeable future because CalPERS is lowering its investment returns, resulting in additional increases to employer contributions — up to 28 percent by 2023. “CalSTRS is in the process of taking a similar action,” Roth added.
Roth said it is “not accurate” to say BUSD reserves are projected to grow by $1 million annually because the district’s first interim budget report and multi-year budget projections were adopted before any labor settlements were reached or the governor’s January budget proposal for the 2017-18 school year was released.
For 2016-17 Roth projects an ending fund balance of approximately $4.5 million in BUSD reserves and in 2017-18 approximately $3.8 million. “But remember, no labor settlements have been reached for 2017-18 so this number is based only what is known as of today,” he said. “As a result, I am projecting ending the year with an approximately 9 to 10 percent reserve and 8 to 9 percent for 2017-18. This is far below the statewide average for elementary school districts.”
Roth also noted that reserve dollars are one-time funds and need to be preserved in order to ensure student supports and services as the district “deals with the inevitable economic challenges that lie ahead.”
Montessori v. traditional
Moving the Charter Montessori would save money, relieve crowding at the Blue Oak campus and meet the magic number to open school doors, proponents say.
Opponents say they want the traditional neighborhood school they were promised when they moved to Blackstone, adding that they think BUSD’s plan is short-sighted, won’t give them a true neighborhood school and that the caliber of the current district-run charter Montessori isn’t academically superior, as are El Dorado Hills schools as a whole.
Currently 800 students are housed at the Blue Oak campus, 290 of whom attend Blue Oak Charter Montessori. Two-thirds of those students’ families surveyed by the district have indicated they would move with the program to the new campus.
Retaining staff instead of hiring from scratch would also make for a smoother and less expensive, transition, according to BUSD officials. Eleven teachers would move and Blue Oak Principal Paul Stewart would lead the new school. Proponents tout Blue Oak Charter Montessori as unique for its hybrid approach, blending Montessori principles with traditional education. For instance, Chromebooks are in classrooms and the school doesn’t have mixed-age classrooms but group children by traditional school grades.
In four days of accepting registrations, Roth said the district received 189 registrations for Charter Montessori TK-6. “We anticipate many more in the coming weeks,” he said. Detractors say this number is mostly from families already there.
More than 400 signatures had been collected as of press time demanding that Valley View open as a traditional school.
Blackstone families would have first rights to attend the Charter Montessori, which would be given a new name with families’ input. Today there are approximately 187 elementary school-age children in Blackstone. The majority of children have been attending Brooks Elementary, where students are grouped in “Valley View” classes, so that once they transfer they will stay together. If children remain at Brooks, those students must still attend Camerado Middle School and then may choose between Ponderosa or Union Mine for high school. About half of families want to remain where they have been going, whether it be private schools or other schools in BUSD, whether or not Valley View opens as a traditional school, Roth noted.
Not for Blackstone parent Erik Berke. He said he moved to Blackstone in 2015 “with the expectation and understanding that Valley View would be open for the 2016 school year.” Berke said that if Valley View opens as a traditional school he would “100 percent” move his children, currently third- and fifth-graders at Brooks.
“This charter Montessori will also service all areas outside of the BUSD, therefore exacerbating the current limited space issues BUSD is already facing,” Berke added.
Other Blackstone residents agree and say that with a charter Montessori, Brooks would still be the traditional option and therefore Blackstone kids will still be scattered.
Joshua Throne and his family moved to Blackstone three years ago. He said he pays $1,060 a year in Mello Roos for the school and thinks it is unfair for other students whose parents do not pay get to attend. Throne said he and others think believe the plan doesn’t take into consideration the developments that will bring more children to the region. “New housing will fill it in,” he said. “They’re looking at short-term finances. It’s good on paper but not for the community.”
While the Valley View Specific Plan also includes the planned East Ridge Village, which would bring an additional 617 lots, construction isn’t expected to be complete until 2030. Nearby Saratoga Estates will also bring 317 homes.
Throne said he thinks the situation has affected Blackstone property values. “There are no kids because a lot of families have moved out of Blackstone because of school issues,” he said, noting he may move back to Folsom “for more continuity,” though he attended BUSD schools as a child.
Blackstone resident Julie Parsley has a kindergartner and first-grader, but has chosen to keep them in their previous school district with the hopes of enrolling them at Valley View as a traditional school in August. She didn’t want to start them at Brooks and then have to move again. “This was intended to minimize a change of schools for them,” she said.
Blackstone resident and mother of three Mysti Freyenberger is active in her community and worked a few years ago to ensure a dual boundary high school zone would be available for Blackstone residents. She called residents’ complaints about paying school Mello Roos “a moot point,” adding, “We don’t pay anything to go to Ponderosa or Union Mine, yet our kids will go there.”
Freyenberger’s 14-year-old is an eighth-grader at Camerado and her 4-year-old would attend the home campus should it open in August. She said she worked hard “doing outreach and education” to get the Valley View campus open and “would support traditional if they could get 300 kids,” but now favors having the campus open as the charter Montessori after a tour and learning more about it. She said she thinks more residents would be on board if they did “their due diligence.”
Freyenberger’s priorities today are “to retain the school campus, use it for the community and for it to make financial sense.”
Some parents want BUSD to revisit redrawing boundaries, which hasn’t been done for 10 years. This would force all Blackstone kids to attend Valley View should it open, but Freyenberger supports school choice mainly so that “kids aren’t ripped from their peer group.”
Roth said the K-8 model is being offered because many charter Montessori families have asked for it and that it would also provide another middle school option for students in the El Dorado Hills area.
Blackstone parent Aimee Poquiz has three school-age children and said serving upper grades is appealing to her. “We are very pleased that (the proposed school) would go through eighth versus fifth grade,” she said. “Blackstone families who are already established in neighboring schools won’t be forced to move their children and all families will have choices and can do what is best for their own child’s needs.
“Although we do find value in traditional school, we find that the Montessori philosophy is absolutely amazing and it’s the one we choose for our children,” Poquiz continued. “We love that it allows children to learn in a comfortable environment where the room feels more like a home. It focuses on their strengths and what they’re naturally curious about yet still has enough structure to ensure they are learning all subjects. It pays attention to test scores but is so much more than that.”
Blackstone resident Veronica Carreno said it would be beneficial for her children to mix with children outside of Blackstone and outside of El Dorado Hills, adding it would be “unethical to demand that a traditional school open, knowing it takes from other schools.”
“Blackstone would reap the benefits of having a sought-after school in the area,” she added.
Amanda Erskine lives in El Dorado Hills but pulled her oldest child out of an El Dorado Hills school to attend Blue Oak Montessori. “We are so lucky it’s moving down here,” she said.” I know some are against the idea, but I know they will be happy too once they meet the teachers, principal and see how the program works. Though some wanted full traditional, they will realize they are getting the best of both worlds.”
Throne is concerned that the Montessori charter isn’t as high achieving as other El Dorado Hills schools, according to data on Greatschools.org. Yet Roth noted recent academic gains and said, “We anticipate that the school will continue to improve whether it remains at Blue Oak or moves to Valley View.”
The BUSD Board of Trustees is expected to make a decision soon. Public comments were heard at the Feb. 15 board meeting and a decision could be made as soon as March 1.
Planning for Valley View Elementary began in the mid-1990s. The site was approved in 1999 and BUSD submitted final drawings to the state in 2007. Construction was complete in 2013 and the school has served as the interim district office since. Roth said the district office would remain on-site for at least the first year should the school open. The Valley View campus sits on 13.5 acres, has 27 classrooms and can accommodate up to 700 students. Pads for portable classrooms were included. The campus includes a turf athletic field, a hard court area and a 5-acre sports park maintained by the El Dorado Hills Community Services District.