School districts seek to recoup funding lost from fear of December storm

Melody Castro-Paolini holds an umbrella above her husband, Dennis Paolini, as he rakes leaves out of the gutter on Folsom Blvd near 38th Street on Thursday December 11, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif.
Melody Castro-Paolini holds an umbrella above her husband, Dennis Paolini, as he rakes leaves out of the gutter on Folsom Blvd near 38th Street on Thursday December 11, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

The bad news kept streaming in: heavy rain, high winds and flash floods.

Forecasters, scientists and the media warned people to shelter indoors and stay away from work and school. The prognosis was grim for Thursday, Dec. 11, last year: Sacramento would see the worst storm since 2008, the National Weather Service predicted.

NASA climatologist William Patzert said the Pacific Ocean had declared “war” on the California drought. A front-page story in The Sacramento Bee ran with the headline, “A river of rain will hit tonight.” KCRA-TV called it the “NorCal Soaker.” And on social media, residents posted names like #stormageddon, #rainpocalyse and #hellastorm.

Whatever it was called, school officials across the region huddled the day before to discuss contingency plans and closures. But in the end, most schools in Sacramento and Placer counties remained open Dec. 11, only to see attendance plummet.

Attendance was so bad that at least a few districts are classifying the day as an “emergency” in hopes of seeking reimbursement from the state for funds lost with the abnormally high absences.

The Roseville City School District on Jan. 15 became one of the first to consider such an exemption, and in its filing, blamed local media for their “prominent play” of a potential severe winter storm.

“Attendance was great the day before and day after,” said Dennis Snelling, assistant superintendent of business services for Roseville City School District. “It’s a pretty strong assumption it was related to the storm.”

On Dec. 11, 1,244 students missed school, compared to an average of 275 on any given day. The additional 969 absences, amounting to 10 percent of enrollment, would cost the district about $47,000 in state funding, according to Snelling.

The district has 18 elementary and middle schools serving 9,820 students.

The California Department of Education funds schools based on a per-pupil attendance rate that varies by grade level. The policy is in place to prevent schools from closing unexpectedly without good reason, according to CDE spokesman Giorgos Kazanis.

“It isn’t a criticism of the media,” Snelling said. “The media just made people aware of the storm.”

Snelling said an emergency exemption due to weather is extremely unusual for districts in greater Sacramento because of the area’s pleasant climate. Typically, schools file an exemption in cases where a lockdown occurs for unforeseen reasons, driving attendance lower for the day, he added.

A special case was the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks when parents across the nation pulled children from school out of fear. Snelling said the state granted an exemption for several days so schools wouldn’t be penalized for the terrorist attacks.

The Roseville City School District board request will be forwarded to the Placer County Office of Education before it reaches the state.

At Natomas Unified School District, officials are planning to file the same exemption. Attendance there slumped to 8,228 from an average of 9,235, according to spokesman Jim Sanders. The district runs 13 schools with an enrollment of 9,696.

The same scene played out at San Juan Unified School District, where attendance stood at 32,338 on Dec. 11 versus an average of 38,021. San Juan Unified spokeswoman Kim Minugh said the district would also seek an exemption.

Natomas and San Juan officials could not provide an estimate on the amount of money lost from the depressed attendance.

However, not all schools in the region were equally affected. In the case of Sacramento City Unified School District, parents decided to send their children anyway.

“We don’t have any indication there were mass absences,” said Gabe Ross, spokesman for the Sacramento City Unified School District.

Other cities in Northern California weren’t as lucky compared to Sacramento, which escaped the storm relatively unscathed. Several Bay Area schools had to shut their doors. Districts that have filed an exemption with the state include South San Francisco Unified School District in San Mateo County and Pacific Elementary School District in Santa Cruz County, according to Kazanis.

School officials in Sacramento and Placer counties defended the decision to keep doors open, saying they didn’t see the storm as a threat to students’ health and safety.

“We were confident we could handle whatever rain issues were there,” Snelling said. “We notified parents we would be open until further notice.”

But, he added, “Enough of them had concerns about sending their kids.”

Call The Bee’s Richard Chang at (916) 321-1018. Follow him on Twitter @RichardYChang.