Should Montecito Union become a K-8 school to give its elementary students a public place to attend junior high closer to home?
The question is not a new one; the Board of Trustees considered it in 2005 but decided not to pursue it, though a determined group of parents is pushing for a serious discussion about creating a charter school to serve seventh- and eighth-grade students.
Every year, 45 to 80 students graduate from the school, at 385 San Ysidro Road. Many of them go on to Santa Barbara Junior High, while others choose private options such as Crane Country Day School and Our Lady of Mount Carmel School.
At a study session Tuesday night, the board and parents learned that the Montecito Union School District had made a deal with Santa Barbara Junior High to take its graduating students in the 1940s, where many still go. If the one-school district wanted to become a K-8, it would have to reorganize or create a charter school, Superintendent Tammy Murphy said.
The board didn’t make any decisions Tuesday night, but will mull over the options and bring the issue back at a future meeting.
Namita Brown, legal counsel for the district, said that if Montecito wants to reorganize into a K-8 school from a K-6 school, it would need to get a petition signed by 25 percent of voters in the Montecito and Santa Barbara community since it would impact both districts. Or, she added, the boards from each district would have to agree to initiating the reorganization — but any other district looking at a loss of attendance, and therefore funding, probably wouldn’t be too keen on the idea.
Then, the issue would go to county Superintendent of Schools Bill Cirone and the State Board of Education for consideration. If approved, the proposal would be put on the ballot for voters to give the final say.
It’s fairly simple, Brown said, but the process takes a lot of manpower and planning.
Some parents who support the K-8 idea said there’s no chance it would happen and instead pushed for another option — creating a charter school.
Charter schools started popping up in the 1990s to provide an alternative for families unhappy with local public or private school options. The idea is to see what schools can do without being held to the Education Code, whether it’s having a non-traditional schedule, special programming or simply more control over the curriculum, according to Melanie Peterson, a charter school legal expert from Fagen, Friedman & Fulfrost LLP.
She said Montecito could convert to a charter school or add a separate K-8 charter school to be overseen by the existing district, options that can be proposed by the district itself or a third party.
Charter schools must have open enrollment — even to students outside the district boundaries — but can impose caps and give preference to residents, which parents were relieved to hear.
Peterson said a strong business plan is just as important as a clear academic vision, if not more so. When charter schools fail, she said, it’s almost always because of overspending and fiscal irresponsibility.
Montecito is a basic aid district now, meaning its property tax revenues exceed the money the state would give the district per student and the school keeps that additional money. It gets about $23,000 per-student funding, about four times more than neighboring districts. There have been budget cuts of about $500,000, according to Murphy, but there has been no discussion of shortening the school year, increasing class sizes or making noticeable changes.
Enrollment is increasing, and property tax revenues are at a low point because of the economy. Since Montecito is a basic aid district, it doesn’t receive additional money for each new student but has to work within the existing budget, according to chief business official Virginia Alvarez.
The other kind of funding — revenue-limit — is used by the Santa Barbara Unified School District. It receives a specific per-student amount from the state since its property tax revenues come in below that funding level.
After Tuesday night’s board meeting, a parent group pushing for a charter school gave a presentation on their ideas, though they said they want to work with the school community before pursuing a petition.
Parents Wes Mayfield and John Steffen said they have been working on a K-8 charter plan for months. They don’t believe reorganization is an option because of the unlikelihood of getting the required signatures or board approval from the Santa Barbara district, since losing its students would equate to a big loss of money.
Instead, they suggest adding an independent or dependent charter school to the existing K-6 Montecito Union district, which wouldn’t change at all.
Charters are required to offer all of the grades offered by the sponsoring district, so Mayfield and Steffen said they think a non-traditional, non-classroom K-6 could be created to serve as a hub for home-schooled students, athletes or any other children with odd schedules. Then, a traditional seventh- and eighth-grade school could be created.
Steffen said it’s the ideal time to consider adding two grades since the school is working on its architectural master plan and there’s a lot of parent interest.
Mayfield added that students should have a private option for middle school in Montecito. With their idea, the existing K-6 would remain basic aid-funded and unchanged, while the charter school for seventh and eighth grades would be funded at a lower rate from the state, more comparable to SBUSD’s per-student funding.
Mayfield posed the question: If Santa Barbara Junior High can educate children with that amount of money, why not Montecito Union?
“We can challenge ourselves to do what they do with that money,” he said.
Parents expressed concerns about funding and ensuring the current students and Montecito residents get guaranteed spots in the middle school. Mayfield and Steffen said they need the feedback and ideas from the community to make a solid plan.
“Let’s first as a community decide if we want to build this house,” Steffen said, asking parents to look at it as a “glass half-full.”
They’re creating a website for parent and community discussion. They also want to work with the Montecito Union board and district staff to help develop a plan and vision for the new school. If supported, the Board of Trustees could approve a charter school with a 3-out-of 5 vote, which is “liberating,” Mayfield said.