Tiny school’s fate roils rural California district

When Eastern Sierra Unified School District Supt. Don Clark stared down a projected budget deficit, he did what school administrators across the nation have had to do: consider laying off teachers and closing campuses.

But that decision, in a rural district sprawled along U.S. 395 between the snowy Sierra and the deserts of Nevada, has exposed deep resentments between parents of students in traditional high schools and those with teenagers in a college-prep academy designed for high achievers.

Eastern Sierra Academy: An article in the March 17 LATExtra section about a proposal to close the college-prep Eastern Sierra Academy in Bridgeport, Calif., said the distance between that community and Mammoth Lakes, where many students reside, was 35 miles. Bridgeport and Mammoth Lakes are 54 miles apart by road. —

The trouble started a week ago when Clark announced that the district, facing a budget shortfall of $1.8 million, was considering laying off more than a dozen teachers and closing the 15-year-old Eastern Sierra Academy, among other measures.

Supporters of the academy began calling for Clark’s resignation and an investigation into the district’s finances. But other residents welcomed news of the demise of the academy, which they have long viewed as elitist and a drain on resources in working-class mountain towns struggling to survive tough economic times.

“The situation has unleashed pandemonium,” Clark said Tuesday. “Defenders of the academy have come out swinging at me and other schools. It’s a mess.”

Local resort owner Kellie Annette, whose daughter is a junior at the academy, blamed the district “for actions that are ripping apart an important and proud academic family at its roots.”

The gap widened this week as Clark began handing out at least 11 pink slips that would effectively shut down three of the district’s 10 schools, serving 500 students scattered across 3,044 square miles.

The most controversial cut would eliminate a tiny tech academy in the center of this tourist-dependent community of 800 people best known for the lunker brown trout caught in nearby lakes and streams.

The academy, based in twin prefabricated trailers, houses three full-time teachers and one half-time Spanish-language teacher for merely 22 students who are required to master each subject with a “B” or better. The academy does not offer sports or extracurricular activities so that students -- who are chosen by lottery only if there are more than 25 applicants -- can focus on academics.

Last year, the academy scored 866 on a state Academic Performance Index, above the statewide target of 800. Neighboring Lee Vining High School scored 666.

“The atmosphere we’ve created here is different than in a traditional high school,” said Principal Roger Yost. “We never intended to make ourselves out to be better than anyone else. Perhaps we should have tried harder to explain to the surrounding communities what we were doing and why people should care.”

Critics point out that a majority of the academy’s students are from Bridgeport and upscale Mammoth Lakes, 35 miles to the south.

“Many see the academy as serving rich and spoiled people who have always gotten what they want -- that’s why they are crying now,” said Laura Pemburton, a district cook with two children in neighboring schools. “They have made it seem as though kids who like sports are lesser beings.”

On Friday, 300 people braved blizzard conditions to attend an emergency district meeting about the financial crisis. When an academy senior accused Clark of misappropriating funds and urged residents to “not allow this man to cover his back,” he got a standing ovation from adults, including parents of academy students and graduates.

Pemburton said she was “mortified” by the parents’ response. “But, then, they’ve always treated the rest of us that way,” she said.

Compounding problems, administrators and teachers at the nearest high school, Lee Vining, more than 20 miles away, learned this week that the district plans to replace them with academy staffers next year.

“It’s a take-over of our school and folks around here are furious about it,” said Lee Vining’s principal, Sally Hadden, who received a pink slip Monday. “In rural America, every position cut has enormous repercussions. We can’t even go to work at McDonald’s because there is no McDonald’s around here. The dispute is also taking a toll on students. I’ve had kids come up to me and ask, ‘They say we’re not as smart as the academy kids. Is that true?’ ”

Over at the academy, parents have demanded that the district fire Clark or trim his benefits, including an annual salary of $131,000, a tax-free $80,000 home loan and use of a district sport utility vehicle.

Mirth White only hopes the academy manages to survive. “I moved from Los Angeles to June Lake about five years ago,” the private attorney said, “because I wanted my young daughter to one day attend that special little school in a land without barbed wire or security guards at every corner.

“The situation right now is horrible,” she added. “But I’m going to fight to keep that academy open in some form or another.”