By LAURA QUEZADA News Review Staff Writer– There is a lot of positivity at Sierra Sands Unified School District (SSUSD); a new school to be built, new programs offered, new resources that benefit students. You can help. The SSUSD community needs to step up to the plate and respond to requests for data to ensure that the District can receive all of the State of California funds for which they are eligible.
SSUSD families have been notified and asked to respond to a data collection survey so that accurate data can be submitted. This needs to be accomplished by the end of November. As an added incentive, starting on Monday, November7 the District is giving away surplus Chromebooks for free to the first 500 respondents.
The District has done their best to make it easy for families to do their share by creating an online digital form. If folks have questions they can ask their school’s principal or contact them to get the link again.
Why? “The State of California has a funding formula for school districts known as the LCFF – Local Control Funding Formula,” explains Dr. Dave Ostash, Superintendent of SSUSD. “LCFF has as part of its requirement for all school districts to collect household income data. The State uses that data to determine what levels of funding we get.” Households have the choice of two forms: The Free and Reduced Lunch application form or the Household Income Data form.
The SSUSD community of staff and families have some exciting events to anticipate. We will start with Music Education returning to the elementary schools thanks to those ever important funds from the State of California and many dedicated local people who never gave up on its return. The SSUSD Board of Education, District leadership, the music teachers at Murray, Monroe and Burroughs, Ridgecrest Music Enrichment Society (RMES) and families have continued advocating for the return of music education.
There is an Elementary Music Advisory Group working towards hiring music teachers in March 2023 with the plan to have the programs in place by August 2023. They are checking to see if they need to update the existing curriculum and acquire resources.
Dr. Ostash wasn’t in office when the music programs were cut, but he remembers it being due to budget constraints more than 15 years ago. Now the State of California has experienced a record amount of income from taxes: personal income, corporate, sales. He tells us, “Approximately 50% of the state budget goes to public education. We are one of 1000 school districts and we have seen increases to various forms of revenue. One of them is very specific to Sierra Sands because we’re a district that runs a transportation department. Not all districts run a transportation department, but we do and we have seen flat revenue reimbursements for our transportation department since the mid 1980s. No increase to that funding has occurred from the mid 1980s. Until now. This year the legislature passed a new formula that recalculates what districts are eligible for reimbursement for their transportation costs. And for us, that translates into an approximate $800,000 per year increase.”
He clarifies, “It doesn’t fully fund our transportation. We still are in the hole. We’re still spending more money on transportation than we’re being reimbursed. But we are getting about $800,000 more every year in ongoing revenue that really helps us.” This gave them the opportunity to ask, “Where do we want to invest that money because it’s additional money that we’re not accustomed to getting? And that’s the money we’re going to be using to fund the elementary music program.” There will be four full-time music teachers serving six elementary schools. All schools will receive the same curriculum.
Dr. Ostash brings us up to date on the new school. “Richmond elementary school will be built on the land that’s outside the back gate of the Base, which is off of Ridgecrest Boulevard and Richmond Road. It is on an undisturbed piece of land that the Navy and Sierra Sands collaborated to identify.
“This is an 80% grant from the Department of Defense. With that you have to build a school on Navy land, whether it’s inside the control gates or outside is not important, but it does have to be on Navy land. So there were limitations as to where we could put the school. One of the things that has been helpful over the years is for schools to be outside of the secured perimeter fence so that all parents have access right to the school. So Richmond elementary school will be built on this piece of land that’s just outside the back gate.”
Groundbreaking for Richmond Elementary will be early in 2023 with the goal of classes starting in August 2024.
A new agreement between SSUSD and Cerro Coso College could provide dividends down the road. They have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to allow Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVNs) from Cerro Coso to see what a school nurse does in a public school district. At SSUSD a Registered Nurse (RN) or LVN will have an office at the Special Education Local Plan Area (SELPA) at Sierra Vista Education Center on Norma Street. This is not emergency services, this is to monitor or oversee students with conditions that need it. This does not replace medical appointments, but adds the services that parents attend to at home.
When we discuss staff shortages, Dr. Ostash notes that there is a vacancy for an LVN. However, he points out that the topic of staff shortages in schools and public service positions is trending nationally. “I don’t know of any school districts, small, medium or large, that don’t have unfilled positions right now,” he says. “Our first preference, of course, is to have all of our employees be our employees; the vast majority of our employees are.” However, SSUSD has to use contractors, “school psychologists, speech and language pathologists, LVNs, behaviorists who help us with our behavior teams.”
Not all people are aware of the quality of life in Ridgecrest, many have no idea where we are. College graduates tend to seek employment in the city where they live and attend school. Our nearest universities, Cal State Bakersfield and Cal State San Bernardino, are too far away to commute. Besides, Dr. Ostash explains, “Teaching is not a job; it’s a lifestyle.” A lifestyle that includes after hours planning, meetings, grading and parent activities which leaves little or no time to commute.
The shortage of school bus drivers has been in the forefront of citizens’ concerns due to the recent short period of time when bus service was suspended. There are still bus driver shortages; however, the good news is , “We have a bus training class that’s been going on. We have a number of candidates, and we hope some of them will make it all the way through. I’m hoping that in late this year or early 2023, we can hire two or three more bus drivers.
“Ellen Robinson is our Director of Transportation. Not only is she a certified driver, but she’s a certified instructor, which is a huge bonus for us. She completed the classroom portion of bus driver training a couple of weeks ago, and now those who are moving on are now in what you call the ‘behind the wheel portion’ of the class where they’re getting their hours. Ultimately, when they pass that, they can go to DMV and take the test.”
A new elementary school, music education, and LVNs who might join SSUSD someday – all good news. Perhaps now we better understand the funding issues so: Be sure to send in the data survey and perhaps get a free Chromebook.