The Riehl World: Schools Face No-win Choices

by Richard J. Riehl on January 12, 2012

As they plan for next year’s budget cuts, Carlsbad school officials are confronted with options reminiscent of Hobson’s and Sophie’s choices. Thomas Hobson was the 16th Century English livery stable owner who advertised the availability of 40 horses but restricted choice to the one nearest the stable door—a take it or leave it option. Sophie Zawistowski was the mother in William Styron’s novel who is forced to choose which of her two children to save from being put to death by the Nazis.

Closing schools because of budget cuts embodies the same kind of no-win solutions.

Preparing for an expected $8 million budget shortfall next year, school officials are considering the closure of two schools that are substantially more costly to operate per pupil than other district schools because of their low enrollments. Abandoning Buena Vista Elementary and Carlsbad Village Academy would save the district an estimated $1 million.Before the schools are closed parents will want to know how that can be done with the least disruption to their children’s learning and the family’s home-to-school transportation. A closer look at each school reveals how using a rigid per-pupil cost savings formula for short term cuts could lead to a loss of educational opportunities in the long term for a vulnerable student population.

Both schools are located within the city’s 92008 zip code, where the $51,000 median household income is lowest in the city. Forty-four percent of Buena Vista students and 47 percent of Carlsbad Village Academy students qualify for free or reduced lunch. District-wide, only 22 percent of students are from low income families. While 84 percent of school district parents are college educated, only 53 percent of Carlsbad Village Academy parents have ever attended college.

The picture here is clear. The two schools being considered for closure serve a socioeconomic population whose statewide student test scores in English and math have lagged from 10 to 15 percentage points behind those of their more well-to-do peers. The achievement gap between haves and have nots has remained unchanged in the ten years since comparative test scores have been tracked.

But Buena Vista’s economically disadvantaged students buck the trend, scoring higher on the 2011 STARS tests than disadvantaged students district-wide. Sixty-seven percent of the school’s disadvantaged 5th graders were grade-level proficient in English, 68 percent in math. Only 59 percent of similar students district-wide were proficient in English, 58 percent in math.

Carlsbad Village Academy is a Continuation High School that enables students who fall behind to make up credits required for high school graduation. Its small size allows for individualized instruction for students whose academic progress has been hindered by illness, unplanned pregnancies, or behavioral problems.

Only about 300 students would be affected by closing these two schools. That’s less than 4 percent of the district’s 8,500 students. While the pain of a million dollar budget cut would be confined to this small group, it’s sad to see schools on the chopping block that are doing so much good for families who need them most.

But don’t blame Carlsbad school officials for having to balance the books on the backs of the most vulnerable. Closing schools is not just a local issue. California’s November election results will tell what’s to become of schools like these.

Richard J. Riehl writes from Carlsbad. Contact him at

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Bridget Smith January 13, 2012 at 7:26 pm

You make some valid points for keeping the schools open, however I am gravely concerned about the districts intent to increase class size further. At thirty I have already observed that the quality of a Carlsbad School District education has been degraded. Kids barely have room to move around their classroom and kids with special needs don’t always get the attention they need to thrive. My children’s experience at one of the larger schools in Carlsbad is enhanced by a large presence of parent volunteers in the classroom who are able to give kids some of the attention they have lost in a larger classroom.

Schools that have less parent volunteers due to socioeconomic restraints are going to be even more negatively impacted by increasing class size. That area of Carlsbad has several elementary schools in the same geographic area. It is always a tragedy to close a school, I experienced the closing of my neighborhood school in the 1970’s, but it may be necessary to ensure that all Carlsbad students continue to receive a quality education.

Forty kids per class is not worth keeping a school open for so few families.

Vicki McLees January 26, 2012 at 10:41 am

I am a parent of children at Buena Vista. I was at the last school board meeting, and Devin Vidicka, the numbers cruncher for the school district, was asked many questions regarding the school closures. He was asked if closing Buena Vista would keep the other schools from going forty to a classroom. His answer was NO, it would not. If our school is closed, our students will just be ADDED to the already crowded classrooms of the other schools. Closing our school is not going to solve the other school’s overcrowding issues, it’s going to make it WORSE.

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