By Janene Scully
Noozhawk North County Editor
Loss of oil revenue and declining enrollment have put the future of the Vista del Mar Union School District in Gaviota in doubt and have prompted a step toward possibly merging with its Buellton counterpart.
In late March, board members for both districts held a joint meeting to talk about the likely closure of Vista del Mar due to fiscal insolvency and subsequent consolidation with the Buellton Union School District.
In April, the Buellton board approved a three-year shared services agreement that could mark a step toward the end of the one-school Gaviota district that was established in 1926.
“It’s a really exciting opportunity, I think, for both districts to collaborate,” Buellton Superintendent Randal Haggard said.
Under the three-year agreement, the sixth- through eighth-graders from the district’s lone campus, Vista De Las Cruces School at 9467 San Julian Road, will attend classes at Jonata Middle School in Buellton for the 2019-2020 school year.
The Vista middle-school students will benefit from being part of a broader program at Jonata, Haggard said.
The state Department of Education recently recognized Jonata as a 2019 California Distinguished School for outstanding education programs and practices, the only school in Santa Barbara County on this year’s list.
“What we’re trying to do is the best thing for the kids that is fiscally responsible for the district,” said Vista’s interim Superintendent/Principal Bill Banning, who led the Goleta Union School District for five years before retiring in 2017.
Vista has 49 students, including 17 sixth- and seventh-graders. The lone eighth-grader has already transferred to Jonata Middle School.
Vista’s transitional kindergarten through fifth-grade students, expected to total fewer than 30 in the next school year, will continue at the Gaviota campus, but a number of factors have conspired to put the school’s future in doubt.
One big hit occurred in 2015 when the Plains All-American Pipeline rupture led to the suspension of offshore oil production. Without the tax revenue from oil production, a significant portion of the district’s income evaporated immediately.
Around the same time, the state changed the funding for its “District of Choice” programs that had helped boost revenue and enrollment at Vista.
“It was a kind of a double blow around 2015, 2016 that caused their revenues to decline significantly,” Banning said.
Even before that, Vista had to dip into its reserve funds, he said, adding it became clear the district was on an unsustainable path and needed to act.
“It just doesn’t seem that there’s an answer that would keep the district solvent,” Banning said.
For Buellton, the addition of the middle-schoolers could mean more revenue, including $90,000 from increased enrollment as well as payments by the Gaviota district for 40 percent of an assistant principal position and $10,000 for fiscal oversight.
In May, both boards may consider sharing the Buellton superintendent, who would spend most of the week in Buellton and some time at the Gaviota campus.
The actions could lead to what the state Department of Education calls “lapsation,” ending the Vista district, Banning said.
Once the state approves Vista’s lapsation, the Santa Barbara County Education Office Committee on School District Organization would weigh in on the proposal for the Gaviota district’s end.
“By having a superintendent shared with Buellton and an administrator who’s employed by Buellton, it really feels to us like it’s sort of a first step,” Banning explained.
“The Vista school district will still exist next year, but it’s almost a bit of an interim transition to have everybody get to know each other a little bit better before the final transition occurs as early as July 1, 2020.”
In addition to figuring out financial matters, some questions from the Vista community focus on the future of the school buildings under Buellton’s administration and those students still enrolled in classes there, he said.
The fact that both Vista and Buellton offer transitional kindergarten through eighth-grade classes help make them suitable candidates for the consolidation consideration, both Banning and Haggard said.
This won’t be the first consolidation of school districts in Santa Barbara County.
In 2011, Orcutt Union School District absorbed the Los Alamos district, also a one-school district that was experiencing financial troubles and declining enrollment.