Mariposa school board postpones decision on campus closures

MARIPOSA -- Don't fire up the school buses just yet -- the small schools in the Mariposa County communities of Greeley Hill and Catheys Valley got a short reprieve from potential closure Tuesday night.

The Mariposa County Unified School District postponed a decision to close the schools at Tuesday's meeting amid passionate pleas from parents and school staff.

"We don't know what's going to happen with the budget. There's a chance we won't be in this situation next year," board member Kirstie Dunbar-Kari said. "It's a small chance, but it's a chance."

The decision is scheduled to come back before the school board at a special meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday at the Mariposa High School auditorium. The district has a Sunday deadline to submit its budget to the state.

The board did agree, however, to lay off nine teachers and certificated employees because of budget cuts.

Closing the two campuses would result in nearly $400,000 in savings for the school district. District superintendent Aaron Rosander said declining enrollment and budget cuts forced the plan. The number of students attending Mariposa schools hovers around 2,000 -- roughly 700 fewer students than were enrolled in 1995. The district believes the state is going to cut the amount of money the district receives by $349 per student -- for a total loss nearing $700,000. Personnel Director Tammi Richards said the district has had to lay off a total of 41 employees, including 11 teachers and certificated employees.

Board members entertained the idea of closing Mariposa Middle School as an alternative to shutting the two elementary schools, but district administrators said the cost savings wouldn't be as great.

About 80 people crowded into the Mariposa Elementary School multipurpose room for Tuesday's board meeting. The gathering included parents of students at Yosemite Park School, which could be merged with the school in El Portal the next school year if additional cuts are needed, according to the district.

School board member Joe Cardoso said it is one of the hardest decisions he's had to consider. "I am extremely torn about what to do," he said. "It kills me to close Catheys Valley and Coulterville Greeley. When you close a school, the community suffers."

Parents pointed out that both schools serve as the main social gathering place for their wider communities.

"This school is the heartbeat of our community," said Deanna Lessley, a parent of children at the school in Greeley Hill. "We are so far away from everyone. We are a world away from Mariposa and just as far from Don Pedro."

Mariposa County Supervisor Janet Bibby, who attended the school in Cath-eys Valley, said she was worried about the effects the school closure would have on the community.

"If you decide to close the schools, reconsider it each year," she urged board members. "It wasn't too long ago we were talking about overcrowdedness in our schools."

The three-classroom Coulterville Greeley School, built before 1900, is home to about 70 students. The 130-year-old Catheys Valley campus has 63 students enrolled.

Parents of students at Coulterville Greeley are concerned about the impacts of busing their students each day to the Lake Don Pedro campus, which by car is a half-hour drive. District officials, however, said the average bus ride for students at the school is 1½ hours and that they can realign bus routes so that no student should be on a bus ride longer than 1 hour and 45 minutes.

Catheys Valley students would be bused to Mariposa Elementary School, about 12 miles away.

Online Editor Brandon Bowers can be reached at (209) 385-2464 or bbowers@mercedsun-star.com.