Oldest Lancaster School Closes Amid Declining Enrollment And Budget Cuts

At the end of May, students, alumni and faculty of Park View Middle School will gather to open two time capsules--one buried more than 50 years ago--that are beneath the school's grounds. Opening the capsules, however, does not mark an anniversary or a new chapter. Instead, it occasions the more somber milestone of the school's closing.

The Lancaster school board unanimously voted to close Park View in early April, and the doors will be locked on July 1. Closing the school will save the district $1 million, especially because it has the highest maintenance costs in the district.

In disrepair and springing numerous leaks each rainy season, Park View itself is a relic--it is the oldest school in town, having opened in 1949. For many years in the '50s and '60s, when Lancaster was much smaller, Park View was the only school. It also had the only baseball diamond, and it served as the childhood focal point for more than a generation of Lancaster residents.

Today, Lancaster is a different place, and so is the Lancaster School District. Sixteen schools hold more than 15,000 students. But the district is hurting, and needs to close a $12 million budget deficit. Class sizes have increased, with a maximum set at 30 students now, compared to 20 students in grades K-3. The district has laid off 150 teachers, cut administrative staff by 25 percent, decreased work hours for classified staff such as janitors and secretaries, and instituted six furlough days equaling a 3.5 percent pay reduction.

Still the budget deficit remains.

That is because, in the past three years, about 2000 students have left the Lancaster School District, as homes have been foreclosed and families have moved closer to relatives and jobs.

The district receives $45 a day from the state for each student in attendance. With 2000 fewer students, that means a loss of $16 million for the year.

The decrease in enrollment surprised school officials, including Superintendent Howard Sundberg.

"I don't think we expected that," he said. "I've been analyzing the district's enrollment history going back 100 years. For the most part there are not many times when this district is not climbing. For the most part you see this rise in enrollment, up until about 2006, when it started dropping."

Between the 2006-2007 school year and 2007-2008 school year, about 1200 students left the district.

"We had teachers and staff hired, and you don't know this is going to happen, so you have classes with 17 or 15 students," Sundberg said.

Sundburg said Park View's closing and the district's current budget problems are due to a "perfect storm" of troubles both locally and state-wide.

"We have fewer kids that generate money for the district budget, but the state is paying less for each," Sundburg said.

Despite the obvious and necessary reasons for shuttering the school, it is still disheartening for long-term residents and former students--including Superintendent Sundberg himself.

"It was hard to go into the staff meeting and tell the staff about closing the school; that was the class where I went to kindergarten," he said. "At one time Park View had the only little league in Lancaster. My dad was a coach there, my kids played there."

For many teachers and staff at Park View, this school has been their long-time home, and for a few, their only home.

"When I announced that closing the school was a possibility, you could see the shock on some of the faces of the long-term members of the staff," Principal Kathy Lee said. "Some of the teachers who were the most shocked were ones that have only worked here."

That includes Jay Berckes, who has taught at Park View for 11 years.

"My kids have known Park View since as long as I've been teaching here," he said. "My oldest daughter graduated here and my twins are here now in 6th grade. They were looking forward to being Lancer alumni, so it's kind of sad, but I don't think anyone is breaking down in tears about it."

The lack of tears is partly a reflection of how badly Park View needs repairs. The original buildings, opened in January 1949, haven't been significantly renovated. Paint is obviously peeling in many places. Money the school did receive for renovations years ago went to buying air conditioning units because Park View switched to a year-round schedule and the average temperature in Lancaster in July is 95 degrees. Now those air conditioning units need frequent repairs and the covered walkways they sit on constantly leak during rain storms.

"It's falling apart," Berckes said. "There hasn't been the money in the past however many years to fix it as it needs to be. They've put patches on it and put paint over it, but the school just needs a complete overhaul."

California has been forced to slash $17 billion in education funding over the past two years, and more cuts are imminent as the legislature prepares to meet the July 1 budget deadline. There is no support coming from the state for Park View Middle School and the Lancaster School District.

"It is what it is," Berckes said. "The state of the economy is forcing a lot of things to happen that people would never have considered happening. California spent itself into a corner, and this is a result of that."

But the widespread financial problems in California and the Antelope Valley do mean parents and students are more empathetic to disruption and a decline in school services.

"I think everyone understands the economic crisis in this state right now," Lee said. "It's all, 'this is understood,' 'this is the way it is.' It's not unfamiliar to parents."

No teachers will be laid off due to the closing of Park View, and staff positions aren't being filled at other schools so most staff members will have a place to go, too. Students have already learned which new school they'll be attending in the fall.

The student population in Lancaster will grow again, and Park View will reopen when more money is available and the other schools can't handle their student load. Before then, officials say, it will have to be extensively renovated.

Jay Berckes is eager to return to Park View if he has the chance.

"I didn't want to leave," he said. "If and when they open the school back up, I'm going to be the first one in line. I just love it here."

But he also sees the silver lining in its closing.

"People are sad that an icon of Lancaster is closing due to the circumstances, but at the same time they're thinking, 'Hey, maybe Park View will get the facelift it really needs.'"

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