By Peter Jacklin
Orange Unified School District (OUSD) trustees continue to pledge honesty and transparency in their dealings with the public. The Measure S funds and expenditures are held up constantly, by the trustees, as an example of how they will keep the public informed of their plans and righteous spending decisions of the $288 million the public has loaned them to upgrade four of the district’s five high schools. A few important truths lie outside of the limelight.
The current forecast for OUSD enrollment is a downturn of 500 students per year, for the next three years. Last year’s enrollment was down 500 students as well. In total, that’s a downturn of 2,000 students. Putting this in perspective, 500 students are the equivalent of one elementary school, 1,000 students make up a middle school, and 1,800 students, according to Superintendent Mike Christensen, are the maximum enrollment for a high school.
Where have the students gone?
No one seems to know. Currently, there are as many students in private and parochial schools in Orange as there are in the OUSD school district. Recently, families from Panorama Elementary School asked to have their children moved to the Tustin Unified School District. The request was denied. And just last month, applicants withdrew a charter school proposal that would have taken another 500 students out of the district. There is a clear hint here that parents are voting with their feet.
At the same time, the trustees approved a small pay increase for district employees. Now, too, the state is demanding ever-increasing contributions to employee pension plans for the next few years.
Declining enrollment, increasing costs and excess facilities -- the district appears to be in a death spiral.
What will the district do? The matter is under study, according to Supt. Christensen, who offered no timetable for when a decision would be reached. Christensen described a “complicated situation,” as he always does, that requires a thorough and complete study taking some time. One of the OUSD trustees commented that the “City of Orange needs more people” to mitigate the situation.
Considering the facts, why would “more people” choose to enroll their students in a district in this situation?
New thinking is needed. With this long-term indecision hanging over the district, one wonders how the trustees and senior staff of the district can continue to pursue improvements to high schools, one of which may not be needed. There’s $72 million at stake. It’s worth keeping an eye on.