Saugus Union School District officials hosted a two-hour discussion Tuesday evening about a pending staff recommendation to close Santa Clarita Elementary School at the end of the year, leading to questions about the real purpose of the meeting and whether the decision was actually a foregone conclusion.
After district Superintendent Colleen Hawkins and Nick Heinlein, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, spent about two hours explaining why the closure was a fiscally prudent move based on declining enrollments, existing state law and the exorbitant cost of bringing the building up to code because of state law, parents questioned the wording and tone of district communications.
“I just want you all to know that the board and the district did not take this lightly,” said board President Katherine Cooper, “and we’re doing our best to be good stewards with the district’s resources to make sure that your kids have the best experience that they can have.”
She mentioned Monday in a discussion about the staff recommendation that a decision was expected to be made formally next month, but also noted it was a much more cost-effective move for the district.
Speaking right after Cooper, board member Anna Griese reiterated the closure plan was only a recommendation at the moment, despite the fact that the district was taking steps and putting plans in place.
In an effort for transparency, she said, Griese asked parents to bring their concerns to the board in advance of its consideration of the staff recommendation.
“If there are concerns, challenges, pros, cons we do want you guys to speak up and to say something, that decision has not been made yet, let’s just be perfectly clear. So we want an urge to the community to provide their feedback so that the board can actually weigh the pros and cons and the board can make a really sound decision. I would just urge you guys to keep talking, keep sending in questions, keep coming to the board meetings, so that we can hear everyone’s perspective.”
A few of the parents in attendance who expressed confusion over the status of the closure plans Tuesday said the wording of the announcement sent to parents using ParentSquare had a “somber” tone and an apology for the decision to close.
Hawkins presented the first formal steps of the process, a presentation of a campus equity report that’s recommended for any school closure, at the board’s Oct. 10 meeting. The formal decision is expected to be made at the board’s Nov. 14 meeting.
“The bigger concern is: ‘What happens next?’” Hawkins said to parents at Tuesday’s meeting. “I know that’s something that concerns everybody, so we’ll talk a little bit about that.”
School officials said Tuesday evening they’re hopeful that services like a district concierge for parents, priority transfer plans and months of notice will make the process go “as positively as possible.”
Hawkins also told the parents that they would be the only ones next year who could send their child to any school site they preferred after the closure, as long as parents submitted their choice by the district’s Dec. 31 deadline, with a small proviso:
“If you put your first choice, that’s more than likely what’s going to happen,” she said, “but if all 126 families choose the same place, then that might be a little bit more difficult.”
The district is asking parents to submit their first and second choice by the end of the year.
Santa Clarita Elementary’s main campus building was constructed in 1961, said Heinlein, the district’s assistant superintendent of business services, who was also part of Tuesday’s presentation by the district.
In 1999, Assembly Bill 300 required school districts to identify any “concrete tilt-up sites” that weren’t built to 1976 standards for earthquake retrofits.
When the district was reevaluating plans last year, district officials recognized the full cost of the necessary renovations would be more than half the cost of replacing the campus, which was previously estimated at about $24.5 million, according to Heinlein. He said the state pushes districts to replace any building if the repairs needed are that significant.
Hawkins fielded questions from parents for more than 90 minutes after her presentation, discussing everything from how parents’ wishes will be met in terms of their desired school-site choice and what would happen to the land after the school is razed.
For the first question, Hawkins reiterated that’s why it was important for parents to communicate their wishes to the district by its deadline, because officials believe they can meet the demand, as long as it doesn’t overcrowd any of the sites, because there weren’t resources available to add classroom facilities at any of the sites.
As to the second question, a 7-11 committee would be formed by the board, so-called because it has between seven and 11 community members, which would then be responsible for making the recommendation to the board on what to do with the site.
Santa Clarita Mayor Jason Gibbs, who said he was attending the meeting as a parent in the SUSD community and not as a city official, asked Hawkins about the recommendation from the previous 7-11 Committee that met in 2017 and 2018 after Measure EE passed.
Hawkins confirmed that committee made the recommendation in 2017 to close Bouquet Canyon Elementary.
“You would know, being a member of the (oversight committee), that that was involved in a lot of litigation,” Hawkins said. “And we have just finally resolved (the litigation),” she added, making another reference to Gibbs’ membership on Measure EE’s civilian oversight committee, on which he served several terms.
“So, we have made that decision and certainly … yeah, sometimes, you make decisions and things don’t work out, and other things come up where now you can look at property differently,” she said, and then, changing course, added, “we would like to keep the property because we feel we own it and it’s worth a lot of money. And it’s the one thing you can’t get back, right? Once you sell it, we’re not gonna be able to go out and buy another big piece of property like this for something that we might be able to use it for.”