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Room With the Blues : Local Control of Landmark Little Red Schoolhouse Threatened

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Little Red Schoolhouse on the outskirts of Santa Paula prides itself on an old-fashioned style of education. Kindergartners sit next to sixth-graders--working out arithmetic problems or tapping on computers--under the tutelage of two teachers.

The one-room school, with its 38 students, is one of the few remaining frontier schools in California. Its small scale provides an intimate atmosphere missing from most public schools.

But the tiny Santa Clara School District, which operates only the Little Red Schoolhouse, has found that its size is also a drawback.

Only one of the district’s 106 voters has stepped forward to run for the three available seats on the Board of Education. And if no one can be coaxed into public service, the Little Red Schoolhouse alongside California 126 may fall under the control of county school officials.

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“It’s kind of like ‘suppose they had an election and nobody ran,’ ” said Georgia Dennehey, assistant administrator of the county elections office.

In every election, the Santa Clara district struggles to find enough people willing to serve, school officials said. But this is the first time that there are not enough candidates to fill the board.

“The problem is that everybody’s lived here most of their lives,” said Deann Hobson, the only candidate to file so far. “And everybody’s served on the board already. It’s like, ‘I’ve already done it.’ ”

If the election fails to attract at least one other candidate by the 5 p.m. deadline today, county school officials may have to step in.

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Of the incumbents on the three-member board, only Hobson is running for reelection. The other two--Shirley A. Diamond and Jean Faught--declined to seek another term.

Because the three-member board requires two trustees for a quorum, “they can’t do any business” with only one member, state Department of Education attorney Roger Wolfertz says.

The district would then face two possible scenarios:

Either the county superintendent of schools would take control of the district to manage its affairs, or the county Board of Education president would appoint interim trustees to serve on the Santa Clara school board until permanent replacements are found.

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Hobson said she believes that the area’s ranch families take too much pride in their historic school to let it slip under county control.

“That will not happen,” Hobson said. “When it comes time, somebody will step forward. If not, we’ll drag them.”

Built by frontier families 98 years ago, the bright red Santa Clara schoolhouse still operates much as it did when it was founded.

The school’s low pupil-to-teacher ratio draws students from throughout the Santa Clara River Valley--half of the children are transfers from either the Santa Paula or Fillmore school districts.

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But parents of transfer students are ineligible to run for the school board because they don’t live in the district, Supt. Tamera McCracken said.

“We kind of joke how we always tell the board members that if they want to get off the board, they have to get a replacement,” McCracken said.

But Diamond said board members take that responsibility seriously. She is so troubled that she has not found someone to take her place that she would be willing to be appointed to another term.

The board has only one three-hour meeting a month, and trustees generally put in an additional three to five hours a month researching school issues or doing related work, Diamond said.

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“It isn’t really that much,” she said.


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