VISTA — Over 100 parents, students and teachers gathered last week at Rancho Minerva Middle School for an informational forum regarding the possibility of the school being closed or combined with another site due to declining enrollment.
The emotional meeting was one of a series of community forums held over the past week at schools identified for possible consolidation in the Vista Unified School District. Officials announced this month that they would be forming a committee to evaluate the future of various properties, citing an enrollment drop of over 6,700 students in the past decade.
Rancho Minerva was one of four identified schools, along with Monte Vista Elementary, Beaumont Elementary, and Vista Innovation and Design Academy, or VIDA. Additional forums for community members to ask questions about the committee and consolidation process will take place in the coming months.
At Rancho Minerva’s March 16 forum, Superintendent Matthew Doyle assured the community that no decisions had been made regarding closures and that no schools would be closing within the next year.
“The board has made no decisions to close any schools at this point in time. They decided to engage in a process to consider whether or not we should close a school,” Doyle said.
District officials and leaders of Foresight Planning and Development, the district’s asset management consultant handling this process, provided background on how the district got to this point and shared timelines for forming a committee and their decision-making process.
Public schools already receive little to no state funding for facilities maintenance, leaving districts to rely on bond measures like Vista Unified’s $247 million Measure LL passed by voters in 2018.
District COO Shawn Loescher said that while VIDA was identified due to the poor condition of its facilities, Rancho Minerva was identified because of its severely low student population, which ideally would be between 800 to 1,000 students.
“Declining enrollment has nothing to do with the quality of our teachers or the principal. It has to do with how many people live within a boundary,” said Loescher. “When we look at how many students of middle school age live in the area of Rancho Minerva, the number for next year is 417 … way below the critical threshold.”
Districtwide, Loescher said the student population has dropped from around 25,000 to 19,000 students and is expected to drop to approximately 16,000 in a few years. However, leaders emphasized that this enrollment decline is not unique to Vista and is happening in districts throughout California.
The state mandates all districts going through a consolidation process to form an asset management committee of between seven and 11 community members. This committee is tasked with analyzing the condition of the district’s properties and ultimately making recommendations to the school board.
After the board selects members from a pool of applicants at their April 6 meeting, the committee will meet four to six times between April and June and hold various community forums to gather community feedback.
The committee will make its final recommendations in June or July, and the board of trustees can accept or reject them.
Important things to analyze are the capacity of each school site and how well each site is supporting educational programming, said Kristen Rose, CEO of Foresight Planning and Development.
Some potential recommendations could be to consolidate programming to specific schools, create magnet schools with smaller enrollment, remove excess portables, consider joint-use occupancy at certain sites or convert an existing site into a community space.
“What we’ve found is, within the context of declining enrollment and the district’s existing space, if we start to right-size campuses … we probably don’t need as many total school sites as we have. There are 15 elementary school sites, and we could probably do with 13,” Rose said.
Forum attendees understandably had many questions about what might happen to their schools, most of which officials said they could only answer once the committee returned with recommendations.
One concern parents shared was about what would happen to the teachers at Rancho Minerva if the school were to close. Loescher said those teachers would follow the students since there would still be the need for the same number of instructors.
Other parents said if the school were to be converted to a magnet, they would like families to have the choice to stay or go to another school site — the same option given to families at Washington Middle School when it was converted to VIDA in 2014.
“We have not engaged in that dialogue because no committee recommendation has been made,” Loescher said.