State

Modesto's Spencer Driving School closes

After 45 years of teaching generations of students to drive, the rocky economy proved too rough a road for Spencer Driving School.

Owner Larry Anderson closed the north Modesto school Oct. 5.

"We had a significant drop in students," said Anderson, who took over the Oakdale Road business in 2007. "We'd been trying our hardest to keep it going, but it just got economically harder and harder. I've done so many different things trying to keep this thing going."

Anderson bought the school from previous owner Gary Bell, who had run it since 1979 when he took over from his father-in-law and founder, Arthur L. Spencer.

The school opened in 1964 and offered driver education, driver training and traffic violation classes. Anderson worked there first for four years as an instructor.

Current students were mailed a letter from the school instructing them to contact the Department of Motor Vehicles for refunds.

Anderson said he was told by the DMV to direct calls to the agency. The DMV confirmed that current students should call its offices for help filing refund claims.

A drop in students, coupled with the rise in gas prices, insurance costs and rent, made it too difficult to stay open, Anderson said. The school had a 23 percent decrease in business the first nine months of this year.

Anderson also has federal tax liens against the business from the Internal Revenue Service.

Modesto resident Martha Skinner learned to drive at the school in 1978. Her daughter was taking lessons in the company's signature red cars when she received the letter saying the school had closed.

"It is sad. It's a longtime Mo- desto business," she said. "It's just unfortunate that it happened this way."

Since taking over in 2007, Anderson said, he has slashed the school's instructing staff in half, from 12 to six, and made similar cuts in the number of cars in his fleet.

But the cuts weren't enough to combat the drop in teen students, his largest customer base.

He said instead of getting driver's permits at age 15½, as state law allows, new drivers are waiting until they are 18 when driver's education certificates are not required.

"The simple fact is that this economy is hurting," he said. "We have the highest unemployment in the state, the highest foreclosure rate in the state. People know they can wait until they are 18 and just take the written test. A lot of them are just waiting because they can't afford it."

The California Department of Motor Vehicles reported a drop in drivers ages 16 to 19 from July 2008 to 2009 of about 20,000. Stanislaus County saw a similar drop of about 500 teen drivers during that same time.

The Spencer Driving School was about to start its October class session before its closure.

"We've had generations of families come through here and get their education," Anderson said. "I feel bad for the customers, I feel bad for my staff — those are the ones I feel probably worst about. I put everything I had into this business. But I can't keep going with no money."

Current Spencer Driving School students should contact the DMV at (916) 229-3346 for information on how to obtain refunds and credits.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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