California’s prolonged budget quagmire has led to a variety of belt-tightening measures. An unexpected one may mean that families from Goleta, Carpinteria, Ventura and elsewhere who send their children to schools in the Santa Barbara elementary district may soon be squeezed out.

The Santa Barbara school board Tuesday night learned that, for complex reasons triggered by the sputtering economy and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed education budget cuts, the district appears to be — ironically — much closer than was previously thought to going “basic aid,” a funding status that is the envy of many.

But there’s a catch. While most school districts benefit financially from having more students, basic-aid districts — which are rare across California, but common on the South Coast — benefit from having fewer. Typically, such districts close their doors to pupils from outside their boundaries.

Right now, it appears time is of the essence, at least if any decisions are to be made for the 2009-2010 school year. For the roughly 300 students who transfer to noncharter elementary schools in Santa Barbara from outside the city limits, the bottom line is this: a decision could be made as soon as March 1. That would be the latest date on which the board could make changes that take effect during the next school year, school officials said.

The range of options is wide. The board may opt to do nothing for next year. On the opposite end of the spectrum, it could shed all 300 transfer students. According to the district’s projections, dropping all the students would save about $1.9 million annually. Currently, the 10-school district works with an annual discretionary budget of around $33 million.

But money isn’t everything. Shutting the door on students who have spent several years developing friendships with their classmates could be seen as cold-hearted.

In March 2008, the three-school Hope Elementary District off Outer State Street found itself facing these difficult choices. Ultimately, the board decided to cut all transfer students except for the few dozen who would be entering the sixth grade this school year.

The issue was explosive. The Hope district attracted many families from Santa Barbara and Goleta for its high test scores and strong PTAs, and many parents didn’t take kindly to leaving that behind. To this day, hard feelings persist. Next year, the Hope district will have virtually no transfer students left, and will be a basic-aid district.

Santa Barbara school trustee Kate Parker said she is torn.

“Nobody wants to displace families,” she said. “We saw how difficult that was in the Hope School District. At the same time, I also feel like I need to address the greater good — what’s best for the vast majority of students.”

Trustee Bob Noel said he needs more information, but, as of now, can’t imagine shedding any transfer students by as early as March 1.

“Whatever we do, if we’re going to make any changes at all, we certainly have to do it with long lead time, and ample opportunity for parents to adjust,” he said. “I would find (March 1) an awfully tight schedule.”

All told, in Santa Barbara, the percentage of potentially affected families is small. The 300 students in question amount to about 5 percent of the elementary district’s 5,700 students.

According to district figures, about 120 transfer students come from Goleta, 69 from Ventura, 44 from Hope, 28 from Carpinteria and 21 from Oxnard. On Tuesday night, district officials did not have information on which Santa Barbara schools receive most of the transfer students. But Parker said, historically, most have gone to Adams and Open Alternative schools. Adams, 2701 Las Positas Road, is located near a Highway 101 exit, west of downtown and the medical center neighborhood, and so could be considered a logical choice for children of parents commuting from Goleta. OAS, 4025 Foothill Road, is a progressive school that attracts students from all over the South Coast.

Even if the board were to drop all transfer families, the edict would not affect students from outside Santa Barbara who attend any of the district’s three charter schools: Cesar Chavez, Peabody and Santa Barbara Charter. That’s because charter schools operate under a different funding mechanism. (The figure cited by administrators describing the district’s number of local transfer students — the exact number is 313 — does not include charter school students from outside of Santa Barbara.)

Meanwhile, the March 1 deadline pertains to how shedding students would necessitate the shedding of teachers. By law, layoff notices must be sent to teachers by March 15.

Throughout California, basic-aid districts account for just 5 percent of all school districts. On the South Coast, they include every district but Santa Barbara.

A district goes “basic aid” when the amount of property taxes it generates exceeds the minimum per-child amount mandated by the state. The vast majority of school districts in California do not generate enough property taxes to meet the minimum, which is currently around $5,500 per child annually.

Those that do get to keep any spillover, however. In the single-school Montecito Union School District, an exceptionally wealthy district, property taxes generate about $23,000 per child annually.

For the rest, the amount raised by property taxes is topped off by the state. In Santa Barbara, property taxes account for about 90 percent of the entire budget, which means the state provides the additional 10 percent.

But Schwarzenegger’s proposed education budget calls for reducing the minimum per-child amount to about $5,100. That would barely put the Santa Barbara elementary district into basic aid, meaning that, given the district’s current enrollment, the “spillover” would be small in 2009-2010, maybe around $330,000. Were the district to shed its transfer students, though, the amount would be $1.9 million annually.

Lanny Ebenstein, a former Santa Barbara school board member and frequent school board watcher, said that, based on the information presented Tuesday, the trustees should shed some transfer students in the next month.

Specifically, he believes the board should draw the line at fourth grade, meaning incoming fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders would be allowed to matriculate through the system. But students entering kindergarten-through-third grade would have to go. He also believes the siblings of older students should also be grandfathered in, so parents don’t have to send their children to different schools.

“It’s a decision that takes some thought, but if the elementary district becomes basic aid, it could make a difference of millions of dollars in the future,” he said. “In general, if you can get in basic-aid status, that’s a substantial financial asset.”

Write to

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at