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H.B. City School District stops student transfers and postpones kindergarten orientations amid budget cloud

Peterson Elementary
Students decorate art pieces during a YMCA of Orange County summer learning program at Peterson Elementary School in Huntington Beach in 2017. Some parents are worried the campus will be closed amid anticipated budget cuts.
(File Photo)

The Huntington Beach City School District announced this week that it would immediately stop accepting student transfers from outside as well as within the district while also postponing the annual kindergarten orientations.

Wednesday’s announcement came on the heels of a school board study session Tuesday in which trustees discussed a possible school closure amid $6.8 million in budget cuts anticipated for the 2020-21 school year.

Speakers at a district study session Tuesday night responded to rumors of the potential closure of John R. Peterson Elementary School. The district, which previously looked into the closure of Perry Elementary and Sowers Middle schools, says no decisions have been made.

The district currently has more than 800 transfer students from outside its boundaries enrolled in its nine schools. The Fountain Valley, Newport-Mesa Unified and Ocean View school districts sent more than 200 students each. In all, HBCSD has students from 25 other districts currently enrolled, district spokesman John Ashby said Thursday.

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Transfers within the district also will be affected, Ashby said. Currently, 20% of the district’s students living within its boundaries don’t go to the school associated with their residence.

More than 1,900 of HBCSD’s approximately 6,400 students are enrolled under some sort of transfer contract.

If enrollment numbers change significantly at a school or grade level, teachers also would likely face changes.

HBCSD ended the 2018-19 fiscal year in the black but faces “a challenging fiscal environment [amid] declining enrollment and only small increases in funding,” according to a December financial report.

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According to data collected in October, enrollment had dropped to 6,452, and the district was expected to lose 200 more students over the next two years, the district said.

Board President Ann Sullivan said Tuesday that the district historically has been low-funded relative to similar districts. Enrollment numbers have dropped due to changing demographics in the area the district serves, though the budget hasn’t shifted, Ashby said.

“Programs have not changed despite the fact that over the last five years we’ve lost [state] funding ... because we don’t have as many kids,” Ashby said. “It’s required right now that we take a look at where our spending is.”

The financial report that trustees approved in December outlined a total of about $7 million in cuts over the next two school years.

The district will have to reduce the budget during that time to hold onto a minimum 3% reserve required by state law to account for economic uncertainties, keep its budget certified and avoid county scrutiny of the district’s solvency.

Parents from John R. Peterson Elementary School are worried their campus will be put on the chopping block, though the district maintains that no decisions have been made on which school sites could be studied for possible closure and sale.

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

Another consideration is whether HBCSD could be designated by the state as a basic aid district, meaning property tax revenue had exceeded what the state would contribute based on the district’s average daily attendance.

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A basic aid district would get to keep excess property tax revenue while being allocated minimal state dollars.

Some community members speculated that the transfer stoppage is partly in anticipation of the possible loss of attendance-based funding.

The district said it doesn’t know whether its property tax figures have reached the point where they exceed attendance-based funding.

The enrollment period for transfer requests within the district was slated to open in February. Likewise, Kindergarten Roundups, or on-campus programming aimed at welcoming families of incoming kindergartners, had been scheduled for Feb. 5-6.

“We are in a time of uncertainty and waiting until we have some clarity from the board of trustees,” Ashby said.

The district will hold an additional study session from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at the district office, 8750 Dorsett Drive. The first regular board meeting of the year is Jan. 28.

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