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Light shines at end of tunnel for public schools
Survey question for 11th grade students: "I am happy to be at this school."
Strongly disagree — 8 percent
Disagree — 7 percent
Neither agree nor disagree — 24 percent
Agree — 41 percent
Strongly agree — 21 percent
Strongly disagree — 11 percent
Disagree — 11 percent
Neither agree nor disagree — 31 percent
Agree — 31 percent
Strongly agree — 16 percent
Source: California Healthy Kids Survey 2009-11
After holding their breath through a struggling economy, public school officials are finally taking in some air.
The public school system is far from perfect — funds are still scarce, test standards are controlled by the state and school safety is a major concern — but things are getting better, said Frank Crawford, a trustee on the Marysville Joint Unified School District board.
Morale is up among teachers and students, he said, and hope for a bright academic future hasn't died. Much of this can be attributed to the passing of Proposition 30, which helps funnel tax money to local schools and districts.
"It's generating a feeling that perhaps we hit rock bottom," he said, "but we are on our way up."
Crawford said he'll remain guardedly cautious. But with a governor pushing for education reform and an economy on the upswing, the good vibes have been savagely contagious. It's been enough to point Crawford in the same direction.
"I'm rolling the dice with them," he said.
Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, said in an email that a lot has changed since schools throughout the state were threatened by last year's statewide budget cuts.
Under Gov. Jerry Brown's new budget proposal, Proposition 98 funding — which sets money aside for education — would increase from $2.7 billion to $56.2 billion. Additionally, Prop 30 gave schools a vote of confidence that was long overdue, Torlakson said.
"It will take years, of course, to bring our education system back to financial health," he said in an email. "Despite the challenges, California must move forward now so that all children... receive a world-class education that's consistent from school to school, and graduate ready to contribute to the future of our state and our country."
Yuba City Unified School District
Finances, specifically, are a continuous challenge at Yuba City Unified School District, said Superintendent Nancy Aaberg.
However, the district has been able to make do with what it has, she said.
Several schools have been renovated in the past few years and are in good shape. They remain structurally strong and technologically proficient, serving as hubs for sustainable energy, Aaberg said.
In partnership with Energy Education, an energy conservation company, the district has created a sustainable energy program in several of its schools that reduces the consumption of electricity, fuel oil, water and natural gas. The program has already saved the district $615,967 since its inception in 2010.
Yuba City Unified, like other districts in Yuba-Sutter, has also experienced an increase in graduation rates and a decrease in dropout rates. The district had a graduation rate of 82.3 percent in the 2009-10 academic year, which rose to 84 percent in 2010-11.
Dropout rates fell by about 1 percent — to 9.8 percent — in the same amount of time.
On the other hand, enrollment has been rising at the district since 2010-11, when 13,200 students were in attendance. The increase, though small, is beneficial to the public school system, Aaberg said.
Higher enrollment means more money from the state. And more state money translates to a better education for kids, she said.
"The community needs enrollment to be steady," Aaberg said.
Marysville Joint Unified School District
Attendance is now stabilized at Marysville Joint Unified School District, said Trustee Frank Crawford. However, enrollment last year was the lowest it's been since the 2005-06 academic year.
But even after funding shortages struck deep blows to school budgets — the worst Crawford has seen in his 40 years with schools, he said — the district is getting by. Some schools may even see some of the classes and supplies that were once cut.
More than a dozen programs were canceled by the district due to budget cuts in the past few years, according to a report released in December of last year. It cut about $3.7 million in educational programs to make up for the funding losses.
"Hopefully we can make it right again," Crawford said.
One of the things the district does right is educating its students, board president Jeff Boom said.
Although it hasn't been easy. Mandated testing from the state is still putting extra pressure on teachers and students.
"The kids at the top are not allowed to excel the way they want to excel," Boom said.
Live Oak Unified School District
One of the biggest challenges at Live Oak Unified School District is giving students the attention they need with less money and fewer classes, said Superintendent Tom Pritchard.
After the housing market collapsed several years ago, the district had a hard time starting construction projects that were scheduled to begin in 2004, he said. New classrooms and a multipurpose room were to be built at the high school, and several old facilities needed renovations. But a desperate economy held the district back.
However, the school was able to start up construction in 2009, and recently completed work on 13 new classrooms. A new multipurpose building — which will include a stage, cafeteria and kitchen — is in its final stages of construction as well.
State-mandated test scores could be higher, Pritchard said. But overall, optimism is high.
"One of the things we look at is how to continuously move forward," he said.
County offices of education
In Sutter County, school budgets seem to be holding up, said Bill Cornelius, superintendent of Sutter County schools.
The educational system is going through a transformation, but one for the better, he said. With the academic curriculum changing, and a budget that looks to be more flexible, schools are in good standing.
"It's a great time to be in education," Cornelius said.
Transitioning to a new system of standards — and away from state assessment guidelines — has become the focus of Yuba County schools, said Scotia Sanchez, Yuba County Superintendent of Schools.
"That's a big movement for us and a big movement for the state," she said.
Although there is still uncertainty surrounding the future of public schools, Sanchez said the education system is heading in the right direction.
CONTACT Griffin Rogers at email@example.com or 749-4783. Find him on Facebook at /ADgriffinrogers or on Twitter at @ADgriffinrogers