The Santa Barbara School Board will be asked tonight to weigh the interests of improving the educational experience for an at-risk population of high school students against the possibility of reaping an estimated $500,000 a year for the cash-starved district in rent.

The main question is what to do with an empty downtown building at 215 E. Ortega St. now that an elementary school – the Community Academy – has moved into the partly vacant campus at La Cumbre Junior High across town.

Principal Kathleen Abney of La Cuesta Continuation High School – which serves 150 students who are behind on credits – wants to occupy the building. Abney says that because La Cuesta is scattered in four locations, each classroom more closely resembles a one-room schoolhouse than a division of a proper high school.

“I’ve got a math teacher who teaches math, economics, government, science and P.E. – it’s like the one-room school kind of thing,” she said. “They’re getting a quality education right now, but it’s certainly not as well-rounded and as broad as it could be.”

The staff recommendation to the board at 7 tonight is to approve the concept of moving the continuation school to the Ortega Street site, but at least one of five school board members – Bob Noel – is firmly opposed.

“We need the money,” said Noel, noting how the board just last month cut $4.1 million in programs and sent layoff notices to 50 teachers. “That’s my concern, because the cuts were just devastating.”

In a recent report, the school district’s business department estimated that leasing the property would generate roughly $500,000 a year in rent. Tonight, Eric Smith, the district’s deputy superintendent, is expected to present a more detailed account of the money that such a lease could yield.

School board member Kate Parker said if the figure turns out to be that high, she, too, would favor leasing the property over giving it to La Cuesta. “That’s a very large amount of money that would make a big difference to a lot of kids,” she said.

Still, Parker said she believes that it’s important to at least partly merge the disparate campuses of La Cuesta.

La Cuesta has four campuses, each near the main campuses of other traditional schools: Santa Barbara High, San Marcos High, Dos Pueblos High and La Colina Junior High. (The campus at La Colina is known as Las Alturas Continuation High.)

The proposed plan is to consolidate the school in three phases, starting in the fall. The first year would involve merging the continuation campuses housed at Santa Barbara High and La Colina Junior High, which are six miles apart. Other students would come in the following two years. The students at Dos Pueblos in Goleta would stay put, because it is so far away.

La Cuesta generally doesn’t serve students whom have been expelled – that charge belongs more to El Puente School on Gutierrez Street dowtown.

Rather, students at La Cuesta tend to have truancy problems. Typically, they are behind on credits, and La Cuesta allows the hardworking pupils to catch up by completing more credits in a shorter span of time.

“When students get to high school, all of a sudden, there’s all this freedom,” Abney said. “A lot of kids can’t handle the freedom. They go wacky crazy and they go truant. And if you miss enough classes, you’re just not going to pass.”

Abney said there are other benefits to consolidating the students beyond pooling the talents and expertise of their teachers.

“You have access to the library, you have access to the courthouse,” she said, adding that when she was a continuation high school teacher, she would take her social-studies classes on field trips to the courthouse to watch real cases. “We’d have discussions about what they saw.”

The board tonight also will consider the possibility of moving school district headquarters at 720 Santa Barbara St. – next door to the Ortega Street building – to empty classrooms at Santa Barbara Junior High on East Cota Street.

If that happens, the board also would be able to lease the property at 720 Santa Barbara St. Noel estimates that leasing the space could generate an additional $700,000, although that amount has not been verified by the business office.

— Noozhawk staff writer Rob Kuznia can be reached at