In a packed board room, the Santa Barbara school board Tuesday night began discussing the fate of families from Goleta, Carpinteria, Ventura and elsewhwere who send their children to schools in the Santa Barbara elementary district. They could be the first victims of an impending financial storm.

For complex reasons having to do with California’s unprecedented economic turmoil, the district has learned it would most likely be financially beneficial to shed some or all of the roughly 300 students who commute to Santa Barbara from outside the district.

On Tuesday night, despite the impassioned pleas of at least a dozen parents, most of the board’s five members seemed to lean strongly in favor of abiding by the district staff’s recommendation: barring at least some — and possibly a large majority — of the so-called transfer students from enrolling in the fall.

“I want to say how incredibly sorry I am to be faced with pitting the welfare of one set of students against another,” newly elected board member Susan Deacon told the 50 or so parents in the audience. But, she added, “We have to think about the children of this district.”

For the Santa Barbara elementary school district, which exists within the city’s boundaries and enrolls about 5,600 students, the state’s financial disaster has led to an unexpected — and ironic — possibility. The district is much closer than was previously thought to going “basic aid,” a funding status that is the envy of many.

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. Unlike most school districts, basic-aid districts pay for their operations entirely with property-tax revenues, and so do not need any help from the state.

In the case of the Santa Barbara district, shutting out all 313 transfer students would save roughly $1.3 million annually. Shedding roughly half the transfer students — that is, all but those who next year would be in grades four through six — would save an estimated $635,000.

The school board must make a final decision on the transfers before mid-March, and is expected to do so at the next board meeting, in two weeks. The urgency has to do with how the board must lay off teachers to reap the benefits of basic aid. And to lay off teachers, school districts are required by state law to issue the pink slips by March 15.

Parents pleaded with the board to think beyond the cold hard numbers.

Jaimy Suarez, a Goleta resident whose two children attend Monroe School, 431 Flora Vista Drive, is a house cleaner who works a few blocks away from the Mesa school. The family has just one car; her husband drops off her and their two sons on his way to work.

“We don’t have any family who lives in Goleta,” she said.

Parent Jill Davison said her 5½-year-old child had tried two Goleta schools without success this year before finding the one that worked for him, at Monroe.

“If I had to transfer him a fourth time, I swear it would put him over the edge,” she said, her voice quavering as she choked back tears. A single parent, Davison added that she and many other transfer families are model volunteers, devoting many hours to the PTA, fundraisers and field trips.

Many of the parents who spoke Tuesday night came from Open Alternative School, 4025 Foothill Road, which attracts people from all over the area for its nontraditional approach to education. One-third of the school’s students are transfers, mostly from Goleta.

Bernadette McDermott, a nurse at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital who commutes from Goleta, said her child began attending Open Alternative after trying another school in Goleta that didn’t work out.

“It’s been the happiest year-and-a-half of our lives,” she said. “My child has bloomed at OAS.”

Some of the parents were from Washington School, 290 Lighthouse Road, which attracts parents for its Gifted-and-Talented program — the most comprehensive in Santa Barbara County.

School board member Annette Cordero said the state’s current budget quagmire is unprecedented, but she acknowledged that the details of its eventual impact on education are murky.

“It feels like we are making decisions in the dark, and we have to do it, because to not do it puts the entire district at risk,” she said.

Deacon said she’d like the board to consider blocking most transfer students, with the exception being students entering sixth grade and their siblings, as well as the children of district employees. She also said the board should consider granting commuter families the option of attending one of the district’s three charter schools. (Basic-aid districts are not penalized for the transfer students who attend charter schools.)

New board member Ed Heron said he, too, would like to see an exemption made for district employees.

Going “basic aid” is not expected to completely shield the district from the budget knife this year, Superintendent Brian Sarvis said Tuesday night.

“We’re looking at major cuts this spring,” he said.

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 collect enough property-tax dollars 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.

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— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at