Imagine running a business in which your financial officer informs you that you’re suffering net losses of a quarter of a million dollars per year. As a follow-up, though, he offers two alternative plans for responding to this dire situation. Plan A would increase the number of customers by 10 percent and bring in an estimated $300,000 per year in additional revenue; Plan B would push 25 percent of the existing customer-base out the door, incur an additional $200,000 in losses and face serious repercussions by the bank and state authorities. For most of us who live in the world of rational decisions, Plan A is the no-brainer, but for the Lagunitas School District, Plan B was the path of choice.
As the recent financial struggles of the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District highlight, though schools represent many things to communities, at their cores they must act as businesses and actively seek out new sources of revenue. Unfortunately, the recent closure of the Waldorf program is another example of a board willfully ignoring the business side of school operations in order to placate a small but vocal group of people who believe the school belongs to them personally; “We don’t want people moving here for Waldorf!” was a frequent refrain heard at board meetings.
For the record, the Waldorf student and family population represented roughly 25 percent (and growing) of the district’s grammar school. By every historic measure, it should have been supported and allowed to grow, as it has steadily for the last 10 years. In the weeks leading up to the surprise closure, community members turned out in force at a public forum to discuss the future of the program; they expressed, in a 5:1 ratio, their support for continuing and expanding it. Only three people spoke against the program, and these were teachers from competing
The arguments made by those in support of Waldorf included educational preferences and parent choice; many also focused on the impending change in the state’s funding model, from Basic Aid (in which district money is fixed and based on local property taxes) to a modern version of average daily attendance, in which every child who shows up at the doorstep brings with them roughly $8,000 to $10,000 in state funding, regardless of where they came from. Since the Waldorf program already had the three teachers it needed, with seats to spare, the additional revenue could have been spread around the school, like an incoming tide lifting all boats. According to the district’s own budget director, the district could have brought in an additional $300,000 per year in extra revenue by simply allowing a few dozen students in from Fairfax, completely reversing the annual $250,000 deficits and saving the district from massive budget cuts two years down the road. The latter now appears inevitable, and will likely lead to a new round of teacher layoffs and over-stuffed classes.
Claims that the Lagunitas School District couldn’t afford the Waldorf program were not supported by the facts. In cutting the program, the district has shot itself in the foot, ignoring its historic mission to offer parent choice and making a short-sighted attempt to placate one group of people over solutions that would have benefited the entire community. What a shame.
Barton Clark, who teaches physics and astronomy at Sir Francis Drake High, has worked in private industry and public education for over 30 years. He moved with his wife and children to the Valley because of the three-choice model of education offered by the Lagunitas School District.