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Delaveaga School teacher Wendy Molin sings with 1st and 3rd graders inside of a portable building used as a classroom on Friday afternoon. (Kevin Johnson/Sentinel)

SANTA CRUZ -- To avoid the long stretch of cars circling at a snail's pace outside DeLaveaga Elementary after school, Sadie Reynolds parks down the block and walks onto campus to pick up her third-grade son, Rowan.

"This is just a madhouse," she said of the 2:40 p.m. pickup line.

The Eastside school staggers dismissal times for its 639 students otherwise the critical mass would overwhelm staff and parents. Use of the cafeteria and library also are staggered to reduce the impact of having 42 percent more students than the 1967 structure, built on a chicken ranch, was designed to hold.

All four elementary sites within Santa Cruz City Schools have student populations larger than capacity, a problem the district has responded to by placing portable or modular classrooms on top of play areas or lunch spaces rather than drastically increasing class sizes. DeLaveaga has continued to grow so much that even its 14 portables, aren't meeting the school's needs.

"We have a student housing crisis," Superintendent Gary Bloom said, noting the 7,000-student district is growing two to three classrooms each year. "Our students are adequately housed but we are facing a significant crunch that we have to deal with proactively."

Bloom has convened a facilities task force of teachers, administrators and parents to consider reopening Natural Bridges Elementary, a Westside school closed in 2004 after a contentious budget fight that split the community. There are other options to alleviate the crowding -- including increasing class sizes and adding more portable classrooms -- but Bloom said they are not being seriously considered.

The superintendent stresses that no decision has been made yet, but he called reopening Natural Bridges "the most obvious option." If the task force recommends it, the Board of Trustees could take a vote as early as April and, after extensive renovations, the school could be ready in a couple of years.

CHALLENGES AHEAD

But the issue also is fraught with questions, most immediately about the impact on Pacific Collegiate School, the charter school serving 500 middle and high school students that has rented the Natural Bridges site for several years. PCS has been looking for a new site for some time but now may have to step up its time line.

The district also faces a public process over whether Natural Bridges would be a traditional K-5 neighborhood school, open primarily to families who live nearby, or whether it could be assigned only certain grades or purposes, such as the arts. Those decisions will impact hundreds of families.

Then there is the cost.

The district receives no additional funding when its elementary rolls increase or it opens a school because high property taxes qualify the district only for basic state aid. However, the district receives $2 million more per year now in tax funding that once went to the Santa Cruz Redevelopment Agency, which was dissolved by the Legislature along with more than 400 similar agencies statewide.

Bloom said the cost to operate Natural Bridges -- requiring a principal, librarian and other staff -- would cost the district about $600,000. That represents 1 percent of the district's general fund expenditures.

"It's a really defensible expense, but it is an expense," Bloom said.

Renovations would cost an estimated $1 million, which Bloom said the district could tap its facilities fund to cover. The district also will lose the annual $340,000 in rent paid by PCS.

It's hard to predict any district's financial status too far into the future, considering they are always at the mercy of state lawmakers. But temporary tax measures passed in November 2012 that blocked districts from deep cuts have educators feeling more confident about the near future.

The district, which has trimmed $8 million from its budget in recent years by making layoffs, deferring maintenance and making other cuts, currently has an 11 percent reserve and projects being in the black for the next two years.

"Even if we weren't looking at good fiscal times," Bloom said, "we would be looking to do something (about crowding.)"

WHY NOW?

After a decade of declining enrollment, trustees closed Natural Bridges and Branciforte elementary schools in 2004 and moved sixth grade to the district's two middle schools. Branciforte reopened as a campus for alternative programs and PCS took over the Natural Bridges site.

But elementary enrollment has grown 10 percent since the schools were closed and the district estimates it will grow another 5 percent in the next three years.

Board Vice President Cynthia Hawthorne, who ran for election in 2006 out of frustration about the closures, said the district hasn't had the financial stability to act on the crowding until now. But Hawthorne said the district must still determine, "Do we have the support of everyone in the community to go forward with this?"

That remains to be seen as the district rolls out its plans. But the numbers tell the story.

The four elementary schools were built to serve 1,700 students total, and with the 49 portables in use, the total capacity is raised to 2,187. However, the schools serve 2,297 students and are expected to see another 115 students by the 2015-2016 school year.

Elizabeth Lindsley, a teacher at Westlake Elementary and a member of the facilities task force, said reopening Natural Bridges would relieve a big burden on teachers, students and staff. She said portables have taken up valuable play space and caused children to be separated from restrooms and other parts of main school buildings.

"It's stressful to be out on the playground with so many first-graders and standing in line so long to get lunch," Lindsley said.

Bloom said reopening Natural Bridges would not mean the portables would go away. The district owns them, and although some are obsolete and need to be removed, others could host programs that there isn't enough space for now, such as arts and after-school initiatives.

The reopening of Natural Bridges also would not impact class size or require a number of new teacher, Bloom said, because it would simply spread students out over an additional site. Class sizes are expected to stay on average at 22 for lower grades and 27 for fourth and fifth grade, Bloom said.

IMPACT ON PCS

The lease agreement with Pacific Collegiate School requires the district to give the charter school, nationally acclaimed for its academic excellence, a two-year notice if the district intends to reoccupy Natural Bridges.

PCS Principal Archie Douglas said his school has known for some time the district may reoccupy Natural Bridges, but the likelihood was made real when Bloom and Hawthorne met with him several months ago to discuss the elementary-level crowding.

"We fully support the district's need to find appropriate facilities for their kids," Douglas said. "This is a wonderful campus and PCS has enjoyed being here."

Douglas said two years is a tight time line for relocating a 500-student body and 50 staff members, but the school has researched a host of short- and long-term options, including buying or leasing a site. The school hired a land use consultant and architect to scout locations and a group of parents and other supporters have formed a foundation to raise cash for a facility.

"Our long-term goal will be to find a facility for the school that gives us as much flexibility and control over our own destiny as possible," Douglas said.

PCS has not divulged three sites under consideration, although all are within the Santa Cruz City Schools footprint, Douglas said. The sites include an undeveloped piece land, a warehouse and several adjacent parcels -- which pose zoning, parking and traffic issues.

It's unclear how much a new facility might cost, but Douglas said no funds from the school's ample reserves would be used to buy a building. According to its most recent financial statement, the school's annual budget is $4.3 million, and its reserves, built partially with family donations to the school, fluctuate from $2 million to $3 million.

Amid criticism from district officials about the prospect of using public funds for a private foundation, the school agreed last year not to transfer money from its reserves to the foundation. It wasn't the first time PCS and the district have had disagreements.

Past negotiations over the Natural Bridges lease have been tense, once leading to fears the school would have to relocate in just a few months' time. The district also has criticized the school's lack of ethnic and income diversity and enrollment preferences for board members and staff.

Follow Sentinel reporter J.M. Brown on Twitter at Twitter.com/jmbrownreports

At a glance

ENROLLMENT SNAPSHOT

The total enrollment of elementary schools within the Santa Cruz City Schools system has risen 10 percent since 2004. Here are the numbers:

2004-05 2,087
2005-06 2,012
2006-07 2,035
2007-08 2,047
2008-09 2,081
2009-10 2,105
2010-11 2,169
2011-12 2,246
2012-13 2,297


SOURCE: Santa Cruz City Schools

School capacities

The four elementary sites within the Santa Cruz City Schools system are at capacity or exceeding it, including the use of portable classrooms. Here are the current enrollment numbers and capacities.
SCHOOLS ENROLLMENT CAPACITY WITH PORTABLES
DeLaveaga 639 450 619
Westlake 656 450 565
Bay View 559 450 546
Gault 443 375 457

SOURCE: Santa Cruz City Schools