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Remote Gaviota School Struggles in Wake of Santa Barbara County’s Lost Oil Production Revenues

135-student Vista de Las Cruces School serving area ranching families may lose as much as half of its budget

The May pipeline leak that halted oil production on Santa Barbara County’s South Coast has had far-reaching impacts, but few may be as dire as those forced on Vista de Las Cruces School in the rolling Gaviota foothills.

Facing a loss of as much as half of its annual $1.2 million in revenue, the school has had to make some painful decisions, such as closing its preschool program.

The K-8 school — at 9467 San Julian Road just south of Highway 1 and west of Highway 101 — is part of the single-school Vista del Mar Union School District. Current enrollment is 135 students.

The district has been running a deficit for years, and the sharply reduced revenue after the spill has sent the school into crisis mode, said Elysia Lewis, who works as the school’s business officer and serves as PTA president.

The May 19 spill near Refugio State Beach resulted in up to 142,800 gallons of crude oil leaking from a pipeline operated by Houston-based Plains All-American Pipeline.

After the leak, extensive corrosion was found in the ruptured pipe, Line 901, which has been out of service since the incident. The connecting Plains-operated line, which brings processed oil to refineries, also has been shut down for months.

Without operating pipelines, South Coast offshore oil production has been stymied. What’s more, the county has denied industry requests for permits to temporarily transport the oil by truck instead.

That gap in production has meant significant tax revenue losses for the county and for institutions that depend on the funding, including local public schools.

In testimony before county officials, energy executives have said the oil industry adds $1.2 billion annually to the county’s economy.

While county attorneys have urged school districts to recoup their lost property tax revenues as part of the claims process through Plains All-American, that shortfall has left many schools in the lurch.

Santa Barbara County has recovered about $1.6 million from Plains for cleanup and spill-related government services to date, County Counsel Michael Ghizzoni said.

About half of the Vista del Mar district’s $1.2 million in revenue comes from properties owned by companies affected by the spill, Lewis said.

The district doesn’t have an exact number of how much it will lose this year as a result, but it could be as much as half the budget, she said.

The district employs 10 teachers, one superintendent/principal and two employees who work in the office.

“Even if the oil spill had never happened, we’ve been talking about this, how to save the program and make it fiscally responsible,” Scott Turnbull, the school’s principal and district superintendent, told Noozhawk.

He said revenues have remained flat over the years in the district that includes the area from El Capitán State Beach to Hollister Ranch.

The district experimented with charging parents for the preschool program, in which instructor Nancy Wolff currently teaches 12 students. In the end, district trustees couldn’t justify the expense.

At their last board meeting, the trustees decided to terminate the preschool program at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.

The preschool program costs about $76,000 per year, Lewis said, but brings in only about $10,000 in revenue — a significant gap.

Still, she said, the preschool program has been part of the district for the last 20 years, and parents are concerned about the future.

“Many of them are really at a loss,” Lewis said. “They don’t really have other options.”

Fifty percent of the school’s students come from rural ranches and the school plays an important role in their social lives and development, she said.

“Many don’t get a lot of social interaction unless there are other children living on their ranch, and many live on thousands of acres of ranch land,” she said.

A number of students come from large ranches that technically are in the Lompoc Unified School District, but they attend Vista de Las Cruces because it is closer to their homes.

One of the school’s unique aspects is that its demographics closely mirror that of a larger city, Lewis said.

“We serve a group of students who don’t identify with any other district,” she noted.

Because the school is so rural, many of the organizations that might contribute to a local school don’t identify with Vista del Mar, if they even know the school exists, Lewis said.

If people are more aware of the school and the population it serves, they may offer to step up, she said.

Turnbull agreed.

“Early education is something that everybody can get behind,” he said.

School officials “don’t have anywhere else to cut,” he said. “We’re looking for community support financially.”

Lewis said the school is open to any type of support, and is sending letters to nearby ranching operations like Hollister Ranch.

Reaching out to the community “is our last plea for our preschool program,” she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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