Students in small districts deserve better than decaying, outdated schools


This high school wood shop, built in 1954, will not qualify for modernization funding until the district brings an outside entranceway added in the 1970s up to code – an additional expense that Anderson Valley cannot afford, according to Superintendent Louise Simson.

Courtesy: Anderson Valley Unified School District

Gov. Gavin Newsom and the Legislature are wrestling over how to dole out facilities funding for the projected November ballot bond initiative, and my fear is that when all is said and done, small rural school districts will not get their fair funding share at the table. The result will be that students attending schools that have the least political power and the highest facility needs will be, once again, left behind.  And more often than not, those are students who are socio-economically disadvantaged and of color.  Sadly, the quality of a student’s educational facilities experience in California has become defined by a student’s ZIP code. 

Too often, our small rural school systems, which are facing extreme enrollment decline and a lack of bonding capacity, lag far behind nearby more populated school districts. It is unfathomable to me why a student 45 minutes away can receive one educational experience, while students in a small rural district receive another.

During my superintendency at Anderson Valley Unified School District, a 70-year-old school system in rural Mendocino County, I was faced with facilities that were in an extreme state of deterioration. An unincorporated town of just 1,650 people had passed a bond measure back in 2012; but the $8 million they were able to get out was nowhere near enough to remediate the aging infrastructure.

When I arrived in 2021, the community stepped up again, passing an additional $13 million bond with an overwhelming 71% of the vote. With assessed valuations so low and with no real estate development on the horizon due to a lack of a municipal water and sewer system infrastructure, we were only able to pull out $6 million. Throw in on top of that two failed septic systems requiring replacement that topped$1 million with the indignity of students and staff using porta-potties for four months; a plethora of classrooms that hadn’t been touched since Dwight Eisenhower was president; and buildings that were out of compliance with mold and seismic codes, and you have the picture of instructional facilities inequity that just made the instructional divide even greater. And we are not alone. Similar conditions are common for those that don’t have a powerful voice in the Legislature and the lobbying community.

Small, rural districts like mine are run by a district office of three or four people. We are just trying to keep up with the tsunami of reports that the California Department of Education expects us to produce and, in our spare time, do what is best for kids. Wealthier districts exacerbate the disparity with their massive education foundations that create endowment programs that provide even more opportunity for those that need it the least.

It is time for the governor and the Legislature to give students in these crumbling school systems their fair share and create some educational equity on the facilities side. The bureaucracy of the hardship application process is not doable for small rural school systems to navigate by themselves. Small districts end up taking what little money they have for facilities and spending it on expensive consultants that know their stuff but cost the equivalent of a monthly teacher’s salary, to move the applications through the process.

Governor, if you want educational equity, this is how you create it:

  • I don’t need technical assistance. I need money to navigate the process. Allocate a funding stream for small rural schools systems to contract with architects and consultants to move applications through the facilities-hardship process outside my existing budget.
  • If a facility is more than 50 years old and hasn’t been remodeled, let’s use some common sense and engage in a different process.  I shouldn’t have to demonstrate mold, seismic or structural hazards. This building is not an equitable learning environment for kids. Let’s get it done and stop the busy work.

I hope that the governor and legislative partners hear the plea of our rural students and leaders and don’t leave us behind again.  What has gone on in the disproportionality of school facility funding for decades and decades will eventually be tested in the court systems, if something doesn’t change, and the poor condition of the deteriorating rural sites will attest to a judgment that will prevail.

Education in California should be based on equal opportunity to access quality programs and facilities, no matter where you live or whether your parents pick crops or work in tech. Something has got to change on the funding and facilities side if we want to talk about real equity for all kids. 


Louise Simson is superintendent of Anderson Valley Unified School District in rural Mendocino County.

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