“Bureaucracy kind of kills things, you know? We’re people who are here trying to do things, and bureaucracy basically killed it,” said Rail Road Flat Elementary School volunteer Salvador Sanchez, summarizing the past hour of brainstorming ideas to keep the school open, only to be deflated by state regulations.
Despite the professed willingness of community members to do just about anything to preserve their beloved mountain school of 44 students, from fixing roofs to mowing lawns, a hands-on approach to remedying $450,000 in deferred maintenance isn’t a viable option, according to the Calaveras Unified School District (CUSD) board.
“We are limited by law as a school district as far as what volunteers we can send,” said Rail Road Flat Elementary Principal and CUSD Superintendent Mark Campbell at the Sept. 10 study session. “We’re held liable if not done correctly.”
Besides donating supplies and ripping up carpet, he said, there is very little that can be done with passion and elbow grease alone.
If a solution isn’t found, those funds will have to be found elsewhere in the district’s budget, likely through staffing cuts, as they have in years past, Campbell said.
Only the latest in a saga of formal and informal threats of closure, the board must once again produce a decision on Nov. 5 regarding the fate of the 150-year-old school.
In 2010, trustees voted 3-2 to keep Rail Road Flat open. At that time, the school had 85 students.
Since then, enrollment peaked and has entered a downward trend. A projection developed by the district estimates only 28 students will reside at Rail Road Flat in 2024.
Community members say the decline is due to a number of devastating variables, including the 2015 Butte Fire, the exodus of marijuana growers from the region and an overall lack of faith that the school will remain open.
“When you talk about equity as a school board, equity for us is being educated in our community. … Our kids should be included in that equity. Our kids deserve to be educated where they live,” Rochelle Sweet, president of Friends of Rail Road Flat School, said, addressing the board. “I feel like it’s time for you guys to invest in our school as much as we have, and we’re willing to work with you.”
Friends of Rail Road Flat was formed in 2010 to help keep the school open and now provides enrichment classes to students with the help of volunteers.
The Rail Road Flat community points to those courses in art, language, robotics, gardening, beekeeping and more, as well as a Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education in 2005, as evidence of an enhanced education offered at the small school.
According to Sweet, there are at least 20 students who transferred out of Rail Road Flat that may return if provided with the assurance of their school remaining open. Conversely, she said, most students are unlikely to enter other schools in the CUSD system if Rail Road Flat closes, with most parents voicing their preferences to either home school their children or send them to Mountain Oaks School in San Andreas.
Parents referenced long bus rides on icy roads and a disparity between “up country” and “down country” culture that makes it difficult for elementary schoolers to integrate into other “crowded” CUSD schools.
Sweet said a proposal to make Rail Road Flat a charter school was submitted to the board for 2020/21, but the plan “wasn’t sustainable” due to insufficient funding provided by the district.
The district’s budget is also not sustainable in its current state, according to Campbell.
High rates of absenteeism and low numbers in support staff plague the entire district, while per-pupil expenditure at Rail Road Flat is expected to cost $9,585 this school year - by far the highest district-wide. At that amount, Campbell confirmed, the school brings in slightly less per student than it gains from Average Daily Attendance (ADA) revenue, which is the primary source of funding for the district.
Additionally, state-imposed costs are rising while funding decreases, according to board president Dennis Dunnigan.
“The district continues to be under significant economic pressure, mainly due to costs we don’t have any control over,” he said. “Benefit costs from the state are doubling.”
Dunnigan pointed out that schools in more populated regions of California are also struggling to make ends meet and that CUSD is not alone in its dilemma over closing small campuses.
Down the road, other schools in the district could be in danger of the chopping block if finances don’t improve, Campbell said.
Still, Rail Road Flat supporters urged the board to continue pursuing any and all options to keep the “heart of their community” open, including fundraising and grants.
Sanchez suggested that enrollment may increase in coming years due to the potential reintroduction of commercial cannabis cultivation in the county.
In closing, Campbell said, “This board is not tilted one way or another and not banking on if we close the school, all the kids are coming back (to the district). … This is not based on budget alone - it’s a lot of different things, and all the things are important factors.”
“I think it’s good to be able to sit down and have a civil conversation. This hurts us as much as it hurts you,” Dunnigan said. “There are no easy answers, but if we continue to talk, maybe we can come up with some answers.”
Additional discussions regarding the future of Rail Road Flat Elementary will take place during a Sept. 26 meeting at the school, as well as upcoming CUSD board meetings on Sept. 17 and Oct. 22.