The Lookout

Thanks to budget cuts, shiny new school sits unused

Zachary Roth
The Lookout

A more striking symbol of the impact of cuts to education funding would be hard to imagine: A gleaming new Southern California high school that cost more than $100 million to build will sit empty and unused, because the local school district doesn't have enough money to run it.

In 2007, voters approved approved bonds to finance the building of Hillcrest High School in Riverside, which was intended to relieve overcrowding at a nearby high school. But thanks to major cuts in state education funding, the local school district can't afford the $3 million it would cost to pay administrators, teachers, and other staff, and to handle the other expenses that come with operating a school.

So when the school year begins in the fall, Hillcrest will sit idle. Its campus is currently fenced off.

Wendell Tucker of the Alvord Unified School District said the district's $130 million operating budget had been cut by $25 million.

"When the California budget goes down and income in the state goes down, funding to K-through-12 education goes with it," Tucker told USA Today. "We made a number of budget adjustments. Right now, we simply are out of adjustments, and it's not feasible … to open this school."

And it's not clear that things will be any different in 2012. "We'll look at it on a year by year basis," Tucker added.

As if all this weren't frustrating enough, even though the school won't be in use, the district will still have to spend $1 million to maintain the buildings and run air conditioning and other systems, to keep them from deteriorating. The library and sports fields will be made available for community use.

That's little comfort to students at nearby La Sierra High School, where some classes pack in as many as 37 kids.

"I wanted to go to that school," said Natalie Mercado, 14, who lives near the new campus. "I was really excited. … It looked really good."

According to Alvord school board member Ben Johnson, it was a choice between laying people off and keeping Hillcrest closed. "Choosing between people losing jobs and opening the school site, I couldn't in my mind justify one more person out of a job," he said.

Hillcrest's woes are just a symptom of a larger education funding crisis in the Golden State. To address a severe budget shortfall, the state has cut one third of K-12 funding over the last three years--$18 billion in all. California's once-vaunted education system is now 44th among states in terms of per-pupil spending.

Meanwhile, the state's economy is showing few signs of improvement. Its 11.7 percent jobless rate is the second-highest in the nation, and its housing market, hit hard by the mortgage crisis, has yet to recover.

The Hillcrest fiasco is a poignant marker of the bleak situation. "It's definitely a sign of the times," Tucker said. "This is a real-life example of what the current budget situation has done to K-through-12 education.''

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