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Valley schools gain at lake’s expense

Diane Scheerhorn, superintendent of Lake Tahoe Unified School District, wishes she had the problem of her neighbors in Nevada.

Douglas County School District experienced a jump in enrollment for the 2002-03 school year when 215 students blindsided education officials who scrambled to find teachers for the mostly middle-school-aged teenagers.

Scheerhorn and staff are dealing with the opposite problem: how to survive with a deficit of more than $1 million from a sixth year of declining enrollment, coupled with a crippling state budget crisis of $34.8 billion.



LTUSD this year is down 268 students over last year and the future doesn’t look promising. School officials predict the trend will continue over the next two years, meaning more million-dollar shortfalls.

Douglas County was in a similar situation until the pleasant surprise of new students this year. Lake enrollment — the amount of students at Zephyr Cove Elementary, Kingsbury Middle and Whittell High schools — have continued to drop steadily, but valley enrollment has kept the district financially solvent, said Rick Kester, director of business services.




“We just had more growth,” Kester said. “It’s not a pattern. We don’t have a really good explanation.”

Out of 17 counties in Nevada, Douglas County is one of the few experiencing increasing enrollment. Washoe and Clark counties have been growing as well, Kester said.

More students usually means more money from the state. Douglas County received $650,000 for 150 students, the highest enrollment gain in three years because the district agreed with the state on that set amount, Kester said.

But the $650,000 was virtually wiped out when officials had to find and pay 11 additional teachers; five went to the elementary level, while six were assigned to middle schools.

The valley enrollment centered around two Gardnerville middle schools, Pau-Wa-Lu and Carson Valley. They had a combined total of 145 new students, or 67 percent of the 215 new students.

Kester attempted to provide an explanation for the increase. Some home-schooled students returned to the district, he said, and he believed there was “some truth” in a theory that South Lake Tahoe families are moving down to the valley, which would drain LTUSD and inflate DCSD with students.

“Last time when we drew the elementary attendance boundaries, we basically tried to leave the gap in schools that we thought were going to grow,” Kester said. “We looked at housing and where it was being built.”

Development included the 300-unit Chichester Estates in Gardnerville. It’s where Jacks Valley and Gardnerville elementary schools are benefiting.

Both schools experienced a bump in enrollment this year. Jacks Valley Elementary School grew by 40 students while Gardnerville Elementary increased by 34 pupils.

“We basically planned that Gardnerville would grow and that’s what happened,” Kester said.

The same can’t be said for the trio of Douglas County schools at Lake Tahoe. Two of the three lake schools had a dwindling enrollment, while Whittell High School gained four. Zephyr Cove Elementary decreased by 11; Kingsbury Middle School was down 17 this year.

However, Kester is optimistic about lake enrollment. The 2001-02 school year had an 80-student decrease from the year before. The beginning of the 2000-01 school year started with 60 fewer students than the previous year. The phenomenon appears to be leveling off while student population settles back to the original, manageable mark, Kester said. “It’s very difficult, looking forward, to see what we expect out of the future,” Kester said. “We certainly don’t expect any growth at Lake Tahoe. Even after all the declines we suffered at Lake Tahoe, we’re basically sitting at the same enrollment when Kingsbury was built in 1976.”

The Lake Tahoe Unified School District hasn’t seen any growth for several years. Since the 1996-97 school year, when enrollment was 5,978 students, the district has lost 757 students from elementary and secondary schools. Elementary has taken the brunt of the decrease with more than 500 students leaving the district.

At the beginning of this year, the reported loss was 200 students. By the middle of January, an additional 68 students left the district.

Recent efforts by a band of Sierra House Elementary parents to stymie the possibility of their school closing has raised public awareness of the enrollment issue. Rumors of the school closing, which would save the district about $460,000, circulated in the parking lot and across phone lines.

“If people can’t afford to live and raise their families in Lake Tahoe because they are being paid minimum wages; where the market price for a home exceeds its true worth; and the only place to catch the newest blockbuster is a casino, then it’s no wonder South Lake Tahoe schools are suffering from declining enrollment,” said parent Allison Puleri. “As citizens of this community, it’s time we stop accepting that the price we pay for living in beautiful Lake Tahoe is low wages and unaffordable housing.”

— Contact William Ferchland at wferchland@tahoedailytribune.com


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