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District May Shut 3 Schools

Times Staff Writer

Facing a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall and the possibility that state lawmakers will not provide additional funding, Capistrano Unified School District officials are braced to close three elementary schools next year.

James A. Fleming, superintendent of the third-largest school district in Orange County, announced the possible closures last week as part of a larger, sweeping package of cuts that district trustees will consider in coming weeks. Parents, angered by the idea, are planning to voice their concerns at a public hearing on the budget crisis tonight at 6 at Jerome Thornsley Education Center, 32972 Calle Perfecto.

“One of the most difficult decisions a school community has to endure is the closure of one of its neighborhood schools,” Fleming said. “This decision was not easy and was not made lightly ... but we are literally already cut to the marrow.”

Although Capistrano expects to end the current school year in the black, Fleming said that, because of shrinking revenue and increased operational costs, district reserves over the next two years would fall about $12 million short of state-mandated minimums.

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State law requires school districts to submit balanced, three-year budget projections to county officials that must show sufficient emergency reserves.

Closing the Carl Hankey, Del Obispo and Foxborough campuses would save the district about $1.3 million, Fleming said.

The three were chosen because enrollment of elementary school-age students was declining and the campuses were close to other schools that could readily accommodate the additional students, he said.

At their peak enrollments, the schools served about 1,000 students but today accommodate about 400.

Most Hankey students would be transferred to Viejo Elementary, while R.H. Dana Elementary would absorb students from Del Obispo and those attending Foxborough would transfer to Wood Canyon Elementary.

No teachers or administrators would be laid off if the schools close, Fleming said, but would be reassigned in the district.

Separating his list of possible cost-saving measures into categories titled “doable,” “manageable,” “painful” and “draconian,” Fleming has also proposed raising bus transportation fees for many parents, eliminating administrative positions and reducing the custodial staff, among other cuts.

The immediate fate of the three schools rests largely on whether California’s struggling economy strengthens enough to increase tax revenues and provide school districts with an anticipated $1.4-billion infusion.

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Fleming said there was a “reasonable expectation” that state lawmakers would provide the additional funds, of which Capistrano would receive about $10 million. Capistrano trustees, however, must assume the worst-case scenario and approve final budget projections by Dec. 13.

If lawmakers disburse the additional money before mid-March, district officials will have time to rescind the closures, Fleming said. The district would consider going through with closures in future years regardless of budget constraints because of the declining enrollment in elementary schools, he said.

Worried parents have flooded Fleming’s office with dozens of e-mails protesting the proposed closures.

Jennifer Bradshaw, 40, who sends her two children to Del Obispo and who attended the school herself in the 1970s, said she and many other parents were distraught at the idea of losing the school.

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“They can’t close Del Obispo; it’s a great school, a great staff and, selfishly, it’s close to home and I can walk my kids to school,” she said.

“It’s like a bad dream. I never thought I’d get a letter saying they were closing my neighborhood school. I always thought it would be there.”

Capistrano and other California districts have had to confront widespread cutbacks for several years running. In one of the county’s most drastic moves, teachers in Santa Ana agreed to a 4% pay cut to help the district escape a nearly $30-million shortfall.

In Capistrano, few departments have been spared cuts, with parents resorting to aggressive fundraising to help stave-off increased class sizes.

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