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

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