By Raiza Giorgi

After years of declining enrollment, the tiny Vista de las Cruces School District in Gaviota faces a funding crisis and has asked Buellton Union School District for help, which could include absorbing the Vista district eventually.

Parents and other community members had opportunities to speak with interim Superintendent-Principal William Banning about updates of talks between the districts for the 2019-2020 school year at a town hall meeting on March 6. 

The school’s tax revenue plunged when a leaking transmission pipeline halted South Coast oil production in May 2015. The school relied for more than half its budget of roughly $1.2 million on revenues generated by the companies that were affected by the spill, according to the district.

The K-8 school just north of the Gaviota Tunnel is funded by local property tax revenue, also known as “basic aid.”

Since the oil spill, the one-school Vista del Mar district has eliminated most of its extracurricular activities, its preschool program and several bus services while combining a few grade levels and eliminating several teaching and classified positions. There are now only four teachers to serve nine grade levels. 

Compounding the problem is a drop in enrollment since the state Legislature changed “district of choice” rules. More than a third of Vista students lived outside the district; enrollment has dropped from 130 students to fewer than 80, and the number continues to decline.

“The district is spending a good portion of the budget out of reserves, of which there is about $1.5 million left. As we have to plan three years out, there isn’t enough reserves to cover the third year,” Bannon said. 

The solution he presented to the Vista school board is to contract with Buellton to take grades 6 through 8 and keep younger students at Vista. The four remaining teachers would continue to share classes, Bannon added.

Bannon said that, looking beyond the next two years, he hopes that Vista will do a ‘lapsation’ with Buellton and continue to run an elementary school at Vista. 

Lapsation is an action to dissolve a school district, with its entire territory annexed to one or more adjoining school districts, according to California Department of Education. 

Bannon said both districts would both have to vote to “lapse” and take that agreement to the Santa Barbara County Office of Education’s Committee on School District Organization to be approved. The process could take up to a year to complete, and the schools would potentially start the process early in 2020. 

In the meantime the shared services agreement would handle the middle schoolers and Vista would tighten its budget as much as possible. 

Bannon also noted that after lapsation is complete, the Buellton district could decide that the Vista campus is not viable and have all students attend school in Buellton. 

“I don’t believe we can demand that this school stays open, but we can encourage them to consider that option,” Bannon said. 

Some parents asked whether the school would have enough revenue if the county Board of Supervisors voted to start trucking oil from local wells, as proposed by Exxon Mobil in a recent application.

“Even when Vista was at its best around 2012 with the most oil and property tax revenue, they were still deficit spending. Unfortunately, this is the reality and we have to look for other solutions,” Bannon said. 

Bannon said both the school boards have to agree on a joint session date to get the shared services agreement started, and he believes that joint meeting will take place at the end of March. Check for updates.