There are four pillars of the Kings Mountain community, residents say. The volunteer fire brigade, the community center, the elementary school, and the annual art fair that makes it all possible. All four are institutions uniting neighbors and friends.
One of those pillars is in danger, and it isn’t the first time mountain residents have rallied to save Kings Mountain Elementary School.
As Cabrillo Unified School District faces a $1.6 million to $2.5 million deficit, the school has appeared on a possible cut list. Closing the school would save the district an estimated $162,000 a year. The board plans to discuss all the cuts in more detail at its meeting on Thursday. Decisions must be made at the December meeting.
Residents say the elementary school is more than just a mountain icon. It’s their connection to the Coastside and the district.
“The school is really a tether for that rural community,” Amber Stariha, president of Kings Mountain Associated Parents, said. “It’s a tether to the wider Coastside community. (There are) big concerns if that were removed what that would mean.”
Chris Spano and Lisa Thorsen-Spano shared a similar thought as they sat at a table at the school. They told stories about when their kids attended, still able to point out their children’s favorite jump rope spots or the lines Chris Spano helped paint on the ground.
“There was a sense of pride about going to the school,” Chris Spano said.
“We never felt like it was just a mountain school,” Lisa Thorsen-Spano added. “It was a Cabrillo school.”
Not the first time
Residents like Marty Phelps, the president of the Kings Mountain Art Fair Board, remember other such threats to the school.
“Why put everybody through this again?” he asked while standing outside the community center and fire brigade. “If they close, I feel like we would lose our identity as being part of the Coastside community.”
In 2010, the district faced a similar situation. With a $2.5 million deficit looming and a $150 parcel tax election coming, school board officials considered closing Kings Mountain Elementary. After five failed attempts, the school district passed the tax that year and the school was saved.
“There was a deficit, a parcel tax needed to be passed, (Kings Mountain Elementary) was on the cut list,” said Maria King, whose children went to Kings Mountain Elementary. “Similar to now, it was a really stressful time. ... The last time this happened, the community came together and expressed their concern. It’s great to see that that’s happening again for Kings Mountain.”
Many school supporters credit the support from Kings Mountain Elementary School as a reason why the parcel tax passed. Maile Springer, who teaches the fourth- and fifth-grade combination class, remembers the weight the parcel tax election carried then.
“The whole community is supportive of the school and worked to help pass parcel taxes and bond measures trying to keep community schools open,” she said.
Springer said it’s difficult for teachers as they try to plan for an uncertain future.
“It doesn’t create an atmosphere that makes it easy to plan long term,” she said. “As teachers, we try to anyways, knowing our efforts might not come to fruition. ... It’s just hanging over (us) all the time.”
Coming to Kings Mountain Elementary
For some families, Kings Mountain Elementary is within walking distance of their homes. It’s the reason some moved to — or returned to — the mountain. And for other families, they say it’s the best learning option for their kids.
“There are people who went to the school, alumni looking forward to sending kids to school, people who moved back to Kings Mountain to bring their kids to the school,” King said. “It would be devastating to them.”
Nicole Smithson’s son started at El Granada Elementary School, which seemed perfect because it was so close to their home. But then she said her son seemed to change overnight. He was becoming aggressive and defiant and had to sit in a “quiet zone” often.
Smithson, who is now the Kings Mountain Associated Parents secretary, eventually went to the district and started the Individualized Education Program process to assess what her son needed in order to succeed in the classroom. The other classes were all full, but there was space at Kings Mountain Elementary. So, she toured the school.
“It dispersed all my fears,” Smithson said.
After two weeks of being there, she said the majority of her son’s problems disappeared.
“The small environment, it was less chaotic and overwhelming,” she said. Smithson doesn’t know if they could switch to another bigger CUSD school if it were to close.
Ben Rosner has lived in Kings Mountain for 14 years, and his daughter started kindergarten this year. Rosner said his daughter once asked why a religious holiday they were celebrating couldn’t be on a weekend so she didn’t have to miss school.
“Our experience at the school is quite new,” Rosner said. “Our experience with what the school means to the community goes back a ways. One of the draws for a lot of people in the community is the quality of the school ... (It’s) part of our decision to live where we do.”
Emily Phelps, who started the after-school program, Venture Free Children’s Center, attended Kings Mountain Elementary School. She hopes her first child, who’s due soon, can also go there.
“Other Coastside schools have things that make them special,” she said. “One thing Kings Mountain has to offer is that small classroom, small community where you get to know everybody. There’s more personal attention to the things you really need help working on.”
Community advocates for school
Teachers, alumni, parents and mountain residents have written letters and emails, hosted town halls, met with administrators and attended board meetings in support of their local school.
“My hope is that the school does not close because it provides a necessary small school for kids who need a necessary small school,” said Alma Fletcher, a former Half Moon Bay High School teacher and mountain resident. “People need to make their voices known now if they feel strongly about this.”
Kings Mountain Associated Parents President
Stariha is hoping to talk to school board members about how the school and parent-teacher organization can help the district save money without closing the school. The $80,000 the organization has committed this year will help pay for a science specialist, music teacher, field trips, classroom aide and more.
“We understand the district’s need for cost savings,” she said. “We are willing to be part of that process, part of that solution.”
Stariha said a survey the parent-teacher organization sent out indicated 30 students would leave the district if it closed. Parents and school supporters said there would be less voter support from the community and the loss of an alternative learning environment if the school closed.
“We feel it’s very important to have a smaller alternative learning environment amiable to families within CUSD,” she said. “Some children need that type of atmosphere. We value being a part of Cabrillo Unified School District. I think there’s a way for us to maintain that school site.”