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New talk of a possible school closure sparks opposition in Huntington Beach City School District

Peterson Elementary School
Students participate in a YMCA of Orange County summer learning program at Peterson Elementary School in Huntington Beach in 2017. Local students, parents and teachers turned out at a Huntington Beach City School District study session Tuesday night to oppose possible closure of the school.
(File Photo)

The Huntington Beach City School District may again be looking at a possible school closure, much to the chagrin of community members who filled the district boardroom Tuesday night for a public study session.

The board of trustees took no action Tuesday, though discussion focused largely on the possible closure of a school in response to almost $7 million in budget cuts the district has committed to for the 2020-21 school year.

Parents said rumors floated earlier this month about the possible closure of John R. Peterson Elementary School, prompting parents to start a petition in opposition. The petition had more than 1,800 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon.

The district said Wednesday that no decisions have been made on which school sites could be studied for possible closure and sale.

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The district previously studied the potential closure and sale of Joseph R. Perry Elementary School and Isaac L. Sowers Middle School. A district committee recommended in June that both schools be kept open and the Sowers campus be modernized.

Board President Ann Sullivan said the district historically has been low-funded relative to other elementary school districts and has struggled with a continued decline in enrollment and rising costs. A financial report approved in December addressed the accumulated impact.

“This governing board has known that without a positive change in the district’s funding from either enrollment growth or a significant state budget increase, we’d have to make some difficult decisions this year to balance our budget and live within our means during the 2020-21 school year,” said district Supt. Gregory Haulk.

“We’ve been utilizing our reserves for years,” he added. “We’ve been using one-time money to plug areas as that one-time money becomes available.

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“But really, as I’ve told the board before ... we have to continue to do something to keep ourselves moving forward, and we’re at a point where a lot of the strategies that we have used have come to a head.”

Trustee Paul Morrow requested additional information on the process of determining a possible school closure.

Board Vice President Bridget Kaub said she wanted to study costs and additional options before making a decision.

Dozens of community members spoke out against a school closure, with some calling for the board to find alternative solutions. Some urged the removal of Haulk, who they alleged squandered a previous funds surplus.

“Each year, HBCSD engages in an independent financial audit as required by the state and county,” district spokesman John Ashby said. “These annual audits indicate no findings of fiscal impropriety by the school district or leadership, as HBCSD complies with all state, county and federal requirements.”

Reese Dischinger, 10, a student at Peterson Elementary, said she was speaking to fight to keep the school open.

“I am in the neighborhood right next to Peterson, so I know that all the people there walk their dogs there and play soccer games and have picnics,” Reese said. “So it’s a really big and important part of the neighborhood.”

Scott Davis, a parent of two children at Peterson, said: “We have a phenomenal school. ... It’s powered by people — parents, teachers and staff. Strong test scores show the kids thrive. Deep ties to the community ... these would be destroyed by a school closure.”

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Susan Flory, a fifth-grade teacher at Peterson, said tearfully: “It is time to get creative. It is time to seriously consider how to displace the fewest people, how to show your stakeholders who you need so much, I need so much, because without them, none of us have a job.

“We need to ... think about how we can make sure we can take care of our own people, our community and even our neighboring communities.”

Ashby said district staff is working on a new page for the district’s website that will include information. Staff also is working on a “menu of options” ranging from possible school closures to potential program cuts, he said.

Tuesday’s study session was the first opportunity for the public to engage with the board on the matters being discussed, Ashby said.

"[The district is] really thankful we have a community that’s involved and wants to come out and really know what’s going on,” he said. “We are appreciative to the community for wanting to be so involved in the process ... to find the best way to move through a difficult fiscal time in the district.”

Sullivan said the district plans another study session on the issue next Tuesday, a week before the regular board meeting Jan. 28.

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