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Lucia Mar dreams 

The school district dreams big, but may need a local tax hike

Jim Hogeboom, superintendent of the Lucia Mar Unified School District, is an ambitious man.

Hogeboom is in charge of the largest school district in SLO County. It stretches from Shell Beach to the county line and consists of 11 elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools. Though most of his schools are rated highly by parents, he wants something more for his district.

His ambition, he tells anyone who will listen, is to change how children are taught by using new, innovative programs to make his district a “model school district for 21st century learning in the nation.”

To fulfill this ambition, the district is embarking on several innovative education programs that district staff say might transform the learning experience for thousands of students.

One program will transform an elementary school into an International Baccalaureate learning center. Another will create a new high school that will rely on computer technology and project-centered learning to enhance the education experience. Hogeboom said he’s confident the programs will “promote the 21st century skills of teamwork, self-direction, critical thinking, technology, communication, innovation, and global awareness.”

The problem, though, is no one knows if there will be enough money for Hogeboom’s vision. Hogeboom and the Lucia Mar Board of Education launched these programs in April, straight into the teeth of a financial tsunami. They’ve signed onto these big-ticket programs just as the state is threatening to squeeze education funding. To fund these programs, Hogeboom will have to rely on an outside organization and, perhaps, a new property tax levied on district landowners.

The California public education system is facing some of the darkest fiscal times in its history. The district has cut $9.6 million from its budget in the last three years.

The district is planning to cut $3.5 million from next year’s $145 million budget, and it’s possible it may need to cut an additional $5 million if the state Legislature doesn’t find a way to extend $10 billion in tax increases. Layoff notices were initially sent to 66 managers, staff, and teachers when the preliminary budget was developed, but that number has been whittled down. It looks like 14 teachers will lose their jobs for now.

In the face of this downturn, the school board approved a program that will transform Grover Beach Elementary into an International Baccalaureate school. This program’s goal is, according to a Lucia Mar staff report, to transform elementary school students into “more internationally minded people who, recognizing their common humanity and shared guardianship of the planet, help to create a better and more peaceful world.”

While the first year costs for this program are a relatively moderate $83,000, the total five-year costs are slated to rise to more than $1.2 million.

The other program approved by the board will create a “New Tech High School” on the campus of Nipomo High School. The high school is modeled on Napa High School, where each student has his or her own computer and works in groups on projects that require “critical thinking and communication.”

The school is scheduled to open in fall 2012 and start with 100 to 125 ninth-graders. Start-up costs will be $65,000 and will build to $2.5 to $4 million in the first four years, according to Hogeboom.

Lloyd Walzer, president of the Lucia Mar Teachers Association, wonders where the money will come from to fund the new programs.

“[The Lucia Mar Board of Education] agreed not to use general fund money for the first four or five years,” Walzer said. “Where will the money come from after that?”

Though the district has other new programs working for it, such as the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP), it’s fully funded by the federal government and outside grants, he said. Walzer is worried that the district will cannibalize the money for other good programs that help students.

“I applaud that they’re trying to do something new,” Walzer said. “I just don’t want it to come at the expense of other struggling schools.”

The district is forming a “Lucia Mar Foundation for Innovation” to try to raise $500,000 a year to help fund the new programs. Hogeboom hopes to find 30 people who will donate $5,000 each to get the foundation rolling.

Hogeboom believes that between the foundation money, the eventual economic rebound, and—he hopes—a parcel tax that would require voter approval, there will be enough money for both programs.

If not, he said the district can run the programs with far less money than was initially planned for.

“We’re getting used to running lean programs for the last few years,” Hogeboom said.

He said he’s gotten flak for starting the programs in a time of financial hardship.

“I think this is the best time to do this,” Hogeboom said. “Rather than circling the wagons, I think it’s best to come up with bold ideas. People get excited and want to move forward. People don’t want us to hang out and do nothing.”

Contact Staff Writer Robert A. McDonald at rmcdonald@newtimesslo.com.

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