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Basic Aid’s Basic Math Reveals Who’s Rich, Who’s Not-So-Rich

As Santa Barbara and Hope school districts grapple with budget cuts, Goleta, Montecito and Carpinteria find a cushion.

In times like these, when the state budget is in shambles, it becomes revealingly clear that there are two kinds of school districts in Santa Barbara County: the rich and the not-so-rich.

On the South Coast, the K-12 Santa Barbara school system is the poorest of all, followed by the tiny Hope Elementary School District off of upper State Street.

With California’s budget gap swelling to $16 billion this week, both of these districts expect to lose about 5 percent of their discretionary budgets this spring.

Meanwhile, the well-off school districts will come away from the mess virtually unscathed. Predictably, they include Montecito’s two single-school elementary districts, Cold Spring and Montecito Union, which each receive at least twice as much money per child as Santa Barbara.

But they also include the K-6 Goleta Union School District, as well as the most recent addition to the club: the K-12 Carpinteria Unified School District.

In Goleta, teachers last fall received a 5 percent salary hike — their sixth raise in as many years. Ralph Pachter, the district’s assistant superintendent of business, said there are no plans to make cuts this year.

The difference separating the two kinds of districts is that the rich ones enjoy a funding structure known as “basic aid,” meaning their property tax proceeds are so high — and student enrollment so low — that they don’t need help from the state to get the minimum amount of money per child to which they are entitled.

Plus, they get to keep the spillover. In places like Montecito, the spillover is huge; in Goleta, it’s modest.

Statewide, this luxury is rare — basic-aid school districts account for just 6 percent of California’s total. But in southern Santa Barbara County, where property values continue to soar and the middle class continues to leave, they are becoming the rule.

In a couple of years, the basic-aid club will have another South Coast member: The three-school Hope District, which includes the wealthy Hope Ranch enclave.

All this leads to the question: Why doesn’t Santa Barbara qualify? After all, this is the place where the median price of a home is $1.2 million.

School officials say it’s because the K-12 system, which is losing students, hasn’t lost enough to meet the threshold. They don’t expect that to happen until about the 2010-11 school year.

Interestingly, one factor slowing down Santa Barbara’s journey to basic aid is presence of the district’s three popular charter schools. The problem was that the schools were attracting students from outside the city, and basic aid favors districts that are losing students.

However, even if Santa Barbara didn’t have its three charter schools — Cesar Chavez, Peabody and Santa Barbara — the elementary district still wouldn’t be there, school board member Kate Parker said.

“I’ve actually done this calculation,” she said. “If we had no charter schools at all, we would probably go basic-aid maybe a year earlier.”

In Santa Barbara, meanwhile, the point is moot for this year: The school board needs to make $4 million in budget cuts this spring.

To balance the budget, Superintendent Brian Sarvis said he will try to distribute the pain evenly among all levels of staff.

For instance, Sarvis said Wednesday he will propose that the school board cut three-and-half administrative positions, including the post to be vacated at the end of the school year by departing Assistant Superintendent Paul Turnbull.

“These are tough budget times,” he said.

As for Carpinteria, the school district of the sleepy beach town has hit pay dirt in part due to a spate of mega-mansion sales to the mega-wealthy, although plummeting enrollment has also done its part. A year and a half ago, the real-estate trend led the Wall Street Journal to publish an article about Carpinteria titled “The New Gold Coast.”

At the Hope District, Superintendent Gerrie Fausett said she is disgusted by what is happening at the state level, where Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposed budget plan calls for a record $4 billion cut from education.

“I wish that parents would become outraged and begin writing, and letting legislators know that this is not OK,” she said.

At the Hope District — comprised of Monte Vista, Vieja Valley and the namesake Hope elementary schools — the board is looking at cutting about $350,000 from its $7 million discretionary budget, she said.

This means laying off at least five of the district’s roughly 60 teachers. The district, she added, will try to eliminate some nonessential costs, such as watering play fields, but Fausett said such a move would only save maybe $10,000.

“The real place where we have the most expense is personnel,” she said.

“I don’t think people realize what this is going to make their school look like next year," Fausett said. "They’ll realize it in September.”

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