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The painful call: Put Lathrop High campus on ice

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POSTED January 24, 2009 12:45 a.m.
It may come down to this: Manteca Unified either has to cut everyone’s pay, eliminate all transportation or put Lathrop High on ice.

That is the judgment of the point man charged with keeping Manteca Unified solvent and under local control — Acting Superintendent Jason Messer. If Manteca Unified fails to come up with approximately $24 million in cuts to balance the budget, state law is explicit. San Joaquin County Superintendent Rick Wentworth for all practical purposes takes over the district and calls the shots. It is one step from the state putting a bureaucrat in place to completely wipeout local control by making the elected school board subservient to the state receiver.

These aren’t exactly three options that anyone relishes picking from. It has been clear from the get-go with Lathrop High that Messer was among those leading the charge to open it this school year instead of delaying the debut of the Spartans until August of 2010. Hindsight is always 20-20. Messer and ultimately the school board were driven by doing the best thing to educate kids. And opening a high school in Lathrop definitely met the criteria as it made for a stronger connection and kept high school students in their own community to go to school and build traditions.

No one could have foreseen people in Sacramento playing chicken with California’s future. The current budget mess rewrites the book on ineptness and the inability of ideologues on both sides of the aisle to find middle ground with some serious give and take.

Reducing everyone’s pay from janitor and classroom aides to teachers and administrators isn’t going to be a good move for a number of reasons. First, it isn’t wise to add additional financial stress to those on the bottom of the pay scale. It’s reality that stressing out about money impacts your job performance. Equally important is that there are a number of teachers who already dig into their pockets to get things the school district can’t afford for their classrooms. That obviously will end in most cases or else teachers will go under further duress by taking a pay cut and underwriting expenses for the classroom.

From a practical standpoint in future budget years, it makes no sense. The reason is simple. Employees are covered by negotiated contracts. What they may give up in actual pay — or negotiated raises — now has to be restored and repaid at some point. That will just make it even more difficult to climb out of the hole once the economy starts moving.

Cutting all transportation — except special education which is required by law — would create extraordinary burdens. Yes, most kids in Manteca, Lathrop, and Weston Ranch could walk to school. There are, however, a number of rural kids that would create a problem for their families. We are talking blue collar workers, farm workers and others.

Then there is the issue of those who may be slack with their parenting skills that may not be motivated to give their kids a ride — or perhaps can’t afford to — when the need arises. It won’t figuratively kill most city kids to walk. There is, however, the real concern daily attendance will drop due to no bus transportation. Whether it materializes is to be seen, but the Average Daily Attendance (ADA) payment the district receives is their biggest source of state income. If it goes down, they can’t afford to meet payroll which will be about all that is left once everything else is cut.

Closing Lathrop High without a doubt would be unpopular in Lathrop. It also would also impact Sierra High.

Even the option of combining Veritas-Nile Garden as well as New Haven-Joshua Cowell elementary schools would barely raise a third of the $1.4 million savings projected with shuttering Lathrop High.

So what does the board do? Hurt every employee in the district financially, tell about 10,000 or so of their students to find a way to get to school on their own, or tick off Lathrop?

They have only one choice and that is to pick the lesser of three evils.

Politically speaking, all three options are treacherous. Cutting bus transportation could cost the district needed revenue. Closing Lathrop High — even for a year or so — could create a serious rift. Reducing everyone’s pay has the potential to create morale problems and financial hardships.

It would appear the least amount of damage would occur if the school board had to decide between those three options is to put Lathrop High on ice for awhile.

It would be painful but the goal must be to keep the district functioning as well as possible both in the classroom and financially.

That must be the bottom line driving the Manteca Unified School District board.
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