Inside Aera
Responsibility, Community Feb 18, 2020

‘Remember the children’: Kern County education needs the petroleum industry

With more than 30% of its children living in poverty, Kern County can’t afford to lose the employment and income derived from oil and gas, says this educational leader

“Any loss in the single largest economic driver in our county will disproportionately impact our youth,” says Kern County Superintendent of Schools Mary Barlow, visiting a pre-kindergarten class in Bakersfield. (Photo courtesy of KCSOS)

As Kern County Superintendent of Schools, Dr. Mary Barlow and her staff serve and support 47 districts with 278 schools serving over 190,000 pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students. In January, Dr. Barlow was one of dozens of speakers who addressed the Kern County Board of Supervisors in support of the local oil and gas industry. Here, she shares her message. 

As a longtime advocate for education and its support services, how do you view Kern County?

Kern County is a county of great challenges. One out of every four Kern County residents lives in poverty, and over 30% of children live in poverty. However, Kern also has great promise. It is one of the fastest-growing areas in the state. Our population increased by over 9% in the past 10 years. Children represent 29.3% of the population.

So, any loss in one of the single largest economic drivers in our county will disproportionately impact our youth.  The petroleum industry provides funding and support to numerous school districts and programs that educate our children and provide them with the tools for lifelong success. The taxes the petroleum industry pays help fund school construction and daily operations that ensure students are prepared to become productive, contributing citizens.

How do employment layoffs affect children?

The impact of unemployed parents is one of the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) that can lead to childhood trauma. Children that experience trauma are more likely to have negative health, social and emotional outcomes. I am encouraged by the Governor’s appointment of Nadine Burke Harris and applaud his focus on early-childhood education programs, early intervention, homelessness and poverty. However, no program can take the place of a stable family with reliable work and income. 

Low-income students are less likely to have access to the resources and support they need to be successful in school and life. 

An impact to the petroleum industry is far reaching to our entire Kern County economy. Parents will seek employment elsewhere, and schools risk the loss of students. Kern school districts employ 9,600 teachers and 22,000 school employees.

What’s the direct financial impact of the oil and gas industry on Kern County’s school infrastructure?

To address growth, many Kern County school districts have passed bonds to modernize and expand facilities, including advanced career technical education centers to meet tomorrow’s workforce needs.

Kern County’s total assessed valuation is over $255 billion. Mineral rights account for 16%, or $40 billion, of that assessed valuation. Almost 59% of local property taxes goes to school districts, so the petroleum industry is a key partner in supporting education in Kern County.  

Any immediate impact to the petroleum industry may result in a decline in assessed valuation, putting district finances and bond repayment at risk. 

How are school districts affected when local property taxes decline?

Two things happen: 1) The state is required to back-fill district funding with state general revenue, increasing our reliance on state taxes; and 2) Kern County school districts and the Kern Community College District would be at risk of not completing existing bond-funded projects, potentially resulting in overcrowded classrooms and students housed in temporary facilities. 

Kern County school districts and the Kern Community College District have $2.4 billion in bonding capacity to build and renovate local schools and over $1 billion of outstanding bonded indebtedness at this time.  The planned projects help fuel local construction industry and the Kern County economy.

What’s your message to policymakers? 

There is no doubt we are a county, a state and a world in transition. The petroleum industry is also in transition. However, the need to power our communities and our world will always exist. We need to carefully plan any transition with forward-thinking industry experts because it is a necessary resource and a primary driver of our economy.

Education and employment are the great equalizers, providing families with the keys to be successful in life. As you make policy decisions, please remember the children. 

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