Jason Messer was clear on one point.
Manteca Unified schools were not only going to survive but they would thrive.
The district superintendent made that observation back in 2008 as the economy started its massive free-fall thanks in a large part to the popping of the unsustainable housing bubble.
What was at stake was enormous. First and foremost, there was the education and the future of 22,000 young people. Then there were the 2,000-plus people who either were teachers or supported the education process at the district’s 32 campuses.
The cutbacks, which Manteca Unified did ahead of the curve, were surgical in nature. By not doing what many districts did and wait to see if things got better, Manteca Unified was able to avoid what amounted to painful wholesale amputations of staffs and programs. Districts that made changes early were able to compound those savings as the years went by.
In order to reshape Manteca Unified to the economic realities, Messer at the school board’s direction called together well over 100 staff from groundskeepers and aides to teachers and principals plus community members to review operations and make recommendations for cutting expenses.
Messer’s message of “survive and thrive” was met in some quarters with snickers. A few outright proclaimed Messer’s words as Pollyanna at best and akin to cheerleading those left on the Titanic without lifeboats at worst.
Today the financial waters are somewhat calmer.
But instead of simply bailing water for the past five years, Manteca Unified has been busy repositioning itself.
From a dollar standpoint, the crowning achievement was taking the penny-pinching energy program that was squeezing out $200,000-plus a year in savings by managing things such as air conditioning and even classroom lighting more effectively and turning it into a model for major long-term cost reduction.
The district wide solar initiative will slash PG&E costs by up to 65 percent. That is money that ultimately will go back into the classroom.
But it wasn’t just about saving money. It was also about educating. Today the Louise Avenue education campus that also houses the district operations is home to San Joaquin County’s first zero net energy building. The Regional Environmental Studies Center is designed not just to be self-sustaining from an energy standpoint but also to educate students and the community alike about alternative energy and the art of conservation.
That zero net building is also symbolic of another Manteca Unified education initiative on what is arguably the Future Ed campus.
The charter school movement is peeling off large numbers of public school students. The Manteca Unified stance with charters is fairly straightforward: Executed right they are another effective way to educate kids.
As charter schools picked up steam and lured more and more students, Manteca Unified responded not by simply creating their own copycat version of charter schools but by addressing a need few — if any—charter schools are addressing and certainly few public school systems. They started rolling out what are essentially charter vocational schools.
Instead of just trying to retain state dollars that go with charter school students, Manteca Unified saw a major need. A lot of high school students were going to community colleges and then dropping out without completing courses of study. At the same time, the cost of private-sector vocational training schools were sky high forcing high school graduates to accumulate large debt to get the training needed to secure entry level jobs.
Enter the Future Ed campus on Louise Avenue west of Airport Way.
The district looked at high demand employment opportunities open to those who had basic training coupled with a diploma. The first program established was the Manteca Unified Vocational Academy Culinary Arts program. Next up is industrial technology and design. Then the plan calls for establishing a school of medical assistance. All three programs are aimed at making students employable when they complete their studies and not simply pushing them out the door for more education.
It is a major departure from other specialized charter schools that are centered around sports, the fine arts, and such. It actually is designed at producing employable results.
Why Manteca Unified did this is simple. They understand things such as computers and iPads aren’t the heart of an education. They are merely tools such as hand held slate boards, abacuses slide rules, and typewriters once were.
They also understand the world can only absorb so many engineers, doctors, and folks with masters in business administration.
Manteca Unified also has its feet firmly on the ground. While many other school districts abandoned agricultural education, Manteca Unified recognized it was and still is the top employer in California. Manteca Unified also got it that there are a lot of well paying jobs in the agricultural sector and not simply minimum wage endeavors picking crops.
That is why it is fitting the vocational charter school shares the same campus with the district’s school farm.
The vocational programs were rolled out not in times of money flowing like water from a broken fire hydrant but during one of the nation’s longest periods of austerity on record.
It is a direct result of the “survive and thrive” attitude that Messer helped implement from the ground up in the Manteca Unified School District.
This column is the opinion of executive editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-249-3519.