Lost programs. Staff layoffs. School consolidations.

New Superintendent Sean McPhetridge used those words to describe what may lie in store for the 3,200 young students and their families who constitute the heart of the Cabrillo Unified School District. There is simply no way to sugarcoat the financial straits the district finds itself in these days.

It’s tempting to blame local school officials for the fact that they will be nearly $10 million in debt in a couple years unless they do something drastic to avoid insolvency. True, McPhetridge’s predecessor bungled recent building projects that were filled with mold rather than students. Administrators have failed to adequately plan for this day and perhaps been overly generous with employee unions and programs. But mostly it’s tempting to blame local administrators because placing the blame on the state — where it more reasonably lies — requires a far more nuanced understanding of the way our public schools are funded.

The state of California traded our collective future for tax cuts. Your children and grandchildren will ultimately pay the price. Once state of the art, California public education now lags behind such paragons of  learning as Alabama and Louisiana. These days, the best schools in the Golden State are often those in wealthy communities, where the electorate perceives a personal interest in propping up public education. These are places like Berkeley and Palo Alto, where voters approve whopping parcel taxes and pour money into booster clubs and educational foundations to pay for opportunities that used to be available to all. Now, when big money comes into schools like ours, it is usually earmarked for ballfields and basketball courts rather than books or the priorities of actual educators.

We have, to an uncomfortable degree, privatized a public education, and we are all poorer for it.

Then there are the demographic challenges inherent in San Mateo County Coastside schools. Most Cabrillo school students are Latino, but that isn’t true of the electorate, some of whom clearly don’t consider those kids to be their problem. Many students speak English as a second language, but not quite enough to qualify for additional money from the state. The fact that so many students come from difficult socio-economic circumstances can challenge educators in a number of ways and ultimately lead to lower standardized test scores. That, in turn, creates the erroneous impression that the schools here are not as “good” as those over the hill.

The coming months will be difficult for Cabrillo elected officials and professional staff. School board members must sell a tax increase that buys only less pain. Some staff members may lose their jobs. Open positions that were once seen as integral to the success of an entire campus will go unfilled. Yet we know that when schools open their doors for students on Thursday, the people who have dedicated their lives to the success of our children will be there with open minds and hearts, ready to prepare the next generation for challenges we can’t even foresee. We wish them great success.

There is no overstating the importance of the Cabrillo Unified School District to the health of the Coastside. We must find a way to fill the funding gap that threatens the future of us all.

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