GREENVILLE Plumas County communities are reeling under a school district recommendation to close three schools in September and prepare to consolidate several others.
The plan, proposed by Plumas Unified School District Superintendent Glenn Harris, has met with furious opposition throughout the rural county, where schools are considered the heart of the community.
Parents, students and business owners have circulated petitions, jammed school board meetings and staged demonstrations carrying signs that read "No School, No Town," "Listen to the Children" and "Recall Harris."
The criticism is not limited to closures and consolidations. In a poll taken by the Plumas County Teachers' Association, 87 percent voted no confidence in Harris.
Under his proposal, the school board would close Greenville High School, Taylorsville Elementary School and one of Quincy's two elementary schools before the next academic year begins.
Greenville High School students would be bused to Chester, a 50-mile round trip over mountain roads. Taylorsville students would attend elementary school in Greenville, and Quincy's two elementary schools would be consolidated into one.
Harris also recommended developing a long-term plan to consolidate Chester's elementary and high schools into one building. He recommended no immediate changes in the composition of Portola-area schools.
The proposed restructuring is prompted by declining enrollment, Harris said. Student numbers have dropped from a high of about 4,000 in the late 1990s to this year's 2,000 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. Enrollment has declined by 100 students a year for the last two decades in the county with one of the highest unemployment rates in California.
Revenues to Plumas schools are also dropping. In 2004, the budget was nearly $28 million. Today it is just over $23 million.
A combination of closing three schools and eliminating around 30 full-time teaching positions would save the district $2.5 million a year, Harris said. Even that, however, will not close his projected $3.8 million shortfall.
The school board took an initial step Wednesday when it authorized sending layoff notices to reduce the staff by the equivalent of 32.5 full-time teachers.
Harris predicted that without additional action, the district will spend all of its $9 million unrestricted reserve fund within the next three years.
He blamed the revenue losses on reduced state funding. Whenever California experiences "significant economic issues," as it is currently, "schools get hit and hit hard," Harris said. "All of a sudden we're taking cuts we never had to deal with before."
Much of the criticism of his proposal to close schools stems from its timing. Harris gave his Jan. 6 recommendations to the school board just as it was establishing citizens committees to consider the long-term needs of schools in each of the county's four primary communities. The committees had not yet started meeting.
That undercut the process for considering school closures suggested by the California Department of Education, said Centella Tucker, a former Plumas school board member and chairwoman of the Indian Valley citizens committee, which includes Greenville.
She blamed Harris for tainting the process to launch his own agenda closing Greenville High School and for failing to consider what's best for children.
"He puts children on the road for many hours a day, takes away educational programs and doesn't care about the impact on their families and communities," Tucker said.
Harris said he cares deeply about children in each of Plumas County's communities.
"That's exactly why we're trying to have these very hard conversations to encourage healthy planning. These issues have been ignored for many years," he said.
Although closing Greenville High School would affect Indian Valley most directly, residents throughout the county see it as a threat to their communities.
"If he can do it to Greenville he can do it to anyone of us," said Jon Kennedy, a member of the Plumas County Board of Supervisors, the Portola citizens committee and parent of three school-age children.
Harris' school closure proposal has generated newfound cooperation among the county's four communities. Separated by as much as 80 miles, they have traditionally competed for funding and facilities in addition to facing one another as academic and athletic rivals.
Now, however, they have united in support of retaining a K-12 school in Chester, Quincy, Portola and Indian Valley.
"Every community is best served by having its own school. All our communities feel this way. That should send a very strong message," said Traci Holt, chairwoman of the Chester citizens committee, business owner and parent.
A vote on school closures is expected at the Plumas school board's April 18 meeting.