State schools chief pledges drought help to Merced County

dyawger@mercedsunstar.comMarch 19, 2014 

Tom Torlakson, state superintendent of public instruction, on Wednesday promised Merced County education officials financial help when the effects of California’s worsening drought manifest themselves this year.

Appearing at a roundtable discussion at the Merced County Office of Education, the state’s top education official said he would use his emergency powers to help school districts financially when their attendance figures drop as farmworker families move elsewhere to find work.

Torlakson said he also will look into providing other funds when local districts must drill deeper water wells and pay more for the fruits and vegetables needed for school meals due to the drought.

“I looked with my legal staff on how we can protect people during a rough time,” Torlakson said. “Under my emergency powers, we can restore the ADA (average daily attendance) loss. We will take applications through the Merced County Office of Education and will grant credit back from ADA. We are focused on that and want to hear from you and provide any kind of relief we can.”

In a Valley-wide tour that began at 7:30 a.m. in Bakersfield and moved northward to Earlimart, Fresno and Firebaugh, Torlakson heard superintendents tell him the effects of the drought already are being felt in schools. Torlakson said what he heard was enlightening.

Stan Mollart, McSwain Union School District superintendent, worried how he will finance anticipated triple-figure costs to deepen and modify the three water wells on his school sites.

“The two older wells already are close to being out of water,” Mollart said. “I’m not sure where to find the money to drill deeper. At this point we’re not too bad, but we don’t have a plan when we run out of water. All this has a ripple effect and it all costs.”

Torlakson is anticipating a statewide ballot measure to raise $6 billion to $8 billion for school modernization and new campuses. He said infrastructure issues such as water wells should be part of the package.

“There are a lot of aging buildings and more than half of them are over 30 years old,” Torlakson said. “There may be other pots of money we can access.”

John Curry, Weaver Union School District superintendent, told the audience of 60 school and community leaders meeting in the Clark-Newbold Room at MCOE that attention needs to be paid to the mental and physical aspects of the drought.

Curry fears dehydration issues as cash-strapped families can’t afford food and water or the economic stress of joblessness affects children and their families.

Torlakson, who oversees education efforts for 6.3 million California schoolchildren in 10,000 schools and 1,100 districts, said the drought is a deep and serious crisis and the extent of it is still unknown. He said the superintendents of some small rural school districts already are seeing an exodus of students as their parents seek farm work elsewhere.

In his first official visit to Merced County, Torlakson said he is impressed with the strong educational team running local schools and this area’s high graduation rates.

“You’re headed in the right direction,” Torlakson said.

Torlakson said he and his staff at the state Department of Education will research drought-related effects on efforts to improve school nutrition. He was told many students come to school hungry and depend upon the meals they receive there.

Steve Tietjen, Los Banos Unified School District superintendent, told Torlakson the migration away from the West Side is already happening. He said this area has never lost water allocations to the extent it has this year. Milk prices will go through the roof and the price of commodities to feed poor people also will spike.

Torlakson – a former Antioch city councilman, Contra Costa County supervisor, state assemblyman and state senator – agreed with calls for more career-vocational education efforts and acknowledged that not every student will go to college.

“The new Common Core curriculum is making all learning relevant to the real world,” Torlakson said. “With new academies, the dropout rates are practically disappearing.”

Sun-Star staff writer Doane Yawger can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dyawger@mercedsunstar.com.

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