Letter to Saddleback Valley USD Board from Lake Forest Parent

The following letter, sent to the SVUSD Board last night, raises questions on the pending closure of Aliso Elementary school in Lake Forest. While I can understand the Board effort to be fiscally responsible in their efforts to maximize their tight fiscal budget, the children, parents and teachers all become part of the domino effect when schools are closed. One issue that troubles me is that the 7-11 commission report to dispose of school facilities lacks any recognition of the impact created by new housing tracts in Lake Forest with approximately 4,000 dwelling units. That concerns me as to SVUSD’s ability to meet the future increase in enrollment in their local public schools.
Date: Sunday, May 8, 2011, 11:36 PM

Hi Suzie,

I have been reviewing the issues surrounding the pending closure of Aliso Elementary school in Lake Forest and I am not seeing the justification for the closing and from the timeline of events – it appears that there could be a hidden agenda.  I’m of course not saying that there is a hidden agenda and I know it’s difficult to imagine that there could be undisclosed issues but with the recent debacles concerning the city of Bell, Vernon and the CUSD, nothing is out of the question these days.

On the surface, the closing of Aliso may be a budgetary issue however I was under the impression that Santiago Elementary was to be closed and those students transferred to Aliso and La Madera which apparently never happened?  In fact – Aliso and La Madera Elementary just recently completed several million dollars in upgrades and repairs including new buildings etc., and now Aliso is going to be closed?  Why would the SVUSD invest significant tax dollars including new buildings at Aliso ($1.3m) and then close it and why is this closing decision being so rushed?  In my opinion school closing discussions should be held over a period of months and not weeks and should include public comment before a vote which doesn’t appear to be happening.  “Lange also testified that when the city of Del Mar went through its school closure process, its 7/11 Committee spent eight months conducting meetings, public hearings at multiple locations, and touring school sites before it released a final report.”(1)

“Dean Waldfogel from DecisionInsite consulting mentions that each school closure could save the district $500,000 on average.” (2)  “ Waldfogel found that closing the three elementary schools could save about $1.5 million, including the cost of maintenance, and salaries for custodians, principals and secretaries. Teachers, Waldfogel said, would be relocated to nearby schools as determined by the amount of students.” (3)  Unfortunately I would need to see EXACTLY where this savings comes from.  I also have a problem with the word “could.”  Historically, when government uses the word “could” – it means “probably not” such as the toll roads, (cost and revenue), DMV computer systems, could need new buildings at Aliso elementary and on and on.  How about some for sure savings with a connection to someone’s compensation type of guarantee?  With that being said the word “could” is almost meaningless in my opinion.  O’Neill and La Tierra were closed in 2009 – I would like to see the documented savings/revenue figures for those facilities and I would like to see DecisionInsite entire report posted on the SVUSD website.  The DecisionInsite report and the SVUSD cost savings documentation regarding O’Neill and La Tierra may only bolster the board’s decision on Aliso and establish a benchmark by which actual cost savings could be measured.

In defense of Dean Waldfogel‘s DecisionInsite study – Dean did say that Aliso should NOT be closed.  “He further stated that “attendance boundaries would be drawn that honor the neighborhood school concept.  From my perspective, Aliso is the epitome of a “neighborhood school” and therefore should NOT be considered for closure.”  (4)

When I look at the other factors regarding Aliso elementary demographic and academic progress I become more suspicious because Aliso appears to be doing quite well.  “They (Aliso) say their school is on the right track and has a stellar performance including an increase of 45 points in their API scores, recent acknowledgment by California State Superintendent Tom Torlakson as a premier school in teaching English Learner students, a partnership with the Orange County Pacific Symphony to provide music education to all students, the iEngage program where iPods increase student involvement and a recent recipient of two of 76 awards given nationwide by Apple Distinguished Educators Award.” (5) Additionally, “their innovative program iEngage, which puts iPods in the hand of all upper grade students has attracted visits from the SVUSD Superintendent”, “and various other interested parties from as far away as New Zealand. “ (6)  Additionally, “Aliso has been singled out for visits by SVUSD Principals to observe the academic program that led to such a phenomenal rise in the API score.  They earned the EPA Energy Star Award and this year two of their staff have been awarded the Apple Distinguished Educator Award.” (6)

Why wasn’t this decision making process started months ago so that parents could have a voice and a full discussion could take place well before the March 11th School Choice deadline?  What will the factors and cost on this missed deadline be and has the district reviewed and compared the demographics of Aliso, Santiago, La Madera and Olivewood?  I think that with Aliso closing, Olivewood could end up being primarily Hispanic and Santiago primarily White increasing racial divisiveness in the area. (7)   I think fully integrated schools such as Aliso elementary should continue to be the example of successful integration and not closed in the interest of segregation or for being on the “other ” side of the tracks as there is separate pedestrian and vehicle tunnels under the tracks almost directly connecting Santiago and Aliso.

With all of the above factors, I simply don’t understand how the SVUSD school board can come to such an expedient decision on closing Aliso elementary when the consultant that was hired by the district recognizes that Aliso is the epitome of a neighborhood school and should NOT be closed.  This error is further compounded by the very very expensive recently completed improvements to Aliso, a huge apparant waste of taxpayer dollars.  Nationally recognized Aliso elementary has demonstrated exceptional academic achievement and appears to be on the right track in all areas.  Why derail the successful progress and investments recently made at Aliso?

What is the long term plan for Aliso and the other schools that are closing?  Who is going to lease Aliso with such an abundance of vacant buildings and how much revenue is being generated from the other district closings from 2009?  The closing of Aliso appears unwarranted, unjustified and unsubstantiated and possibly illegal with no guarantees of cost savings.  Quite simply – What is the SVUSD thinking?  Where are the facts?  I think that the easiest thing for the SVUSD board would be to simply answer these questions and put everything on the table and take ownership regarding the outcomes of these decisions.   If the SVUSD really wants to save money – why don’t we consolidate all the O.C. school districts into one Orange County School District?

Please let me know what the answers are to these questions so that I know that the best interest of the students, parents and taxpayers is being served.

Thank you,


About Larry Gilbert