Very few people will be sorry to put 2008 behind them. Even before the nation (and world) fell off an economic cliff in September, the collapse of the residential housing market had meant widespread economic hardship in Hesperia and the Victor Valley.

Businesses (many of them not obviously connected to the construction industry) were shutting their doors, jobs were harder to find than credit and Hesperia's crop of brand new shopping centers feature at least as many vacant units as they do new businesses.

No one knows if 2009 will be any better, but here are some things to look for in the new year.

HUSD budget cuts

It's the biggest employer in the Victor Valley, but the Hesperia Unified School District is inextricably tied to the state's economy. And with California facing a record budget deficit, the school district faces budget cuts that will begin as soon as this spring.

Seventy-three percent of the school district's revenue comes from the state, in the form of Average Daily Attendance payments based on the number of students attending school. ADA payments have already been scaled back, and are likely to be further cut.
In December, HUSD officials estimated the district needed to cut $2 million from the budget for the 2008-2009 school year already underway, an additional $1.5 million for the 2009-2010 school year and then $2.5 million in cuts for the 2010-2011 school year. But that was when official estimates pegged California's budget shortfall at a mere $28 billion over 18 months, a figure that has risen to an estimated $41.6 billion since then.

The school board faces tough choices as to where to cut: More than 80 percent of the $160 million HUSD budget is salary and benefits.

Everything is on the table, according to HUSD officials. Bussing for summer school or athletic events may be cut, elementary summer school, reorganizing certain departments and -- the big one -- layoffs, are all possible.

And the school board will have to move fast: By state law, teachers must be notified by mid-March if their services will not be needed for the 2009-2010 school year.

Ranchero Road Underpass

If you've lived in Hesperia longer than a few years, the above subhead likely caused you to snicker or roll your eyes. The promise of a new east-west corridor under the BNSF Railroad tracks that divide the city has been dangled in front of residents for more than a decade, with at least one false start.

In 2004, the Hesperia City Council voted to change the name of Ranchero Road Underpass to Jerry Lewis Parkway, after Rep. Jerry Lewis, who represents Hesperia and the 40th Congressional District in Washington.

"Mr. Lewis has been very, very good to Hesperia, he really has," Councilwoman Rita Vogler said at the time.

Lewis is famously, or perhaps infamously, good to his friends, in fact. In 2006, the liberal watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington named Lewis as one of the 20 most corrupt members of Washington.

"His ethics issues stem primarily from the misuse of his position as Chairman of House Appropriations Committee to steer hundreds of millions of dollars in earmarks to family and friends in direct exchange for contributions to his campaign committee and political action committee."

Hesperia residents packed the next meeting of the city council, overflowing out into the hallway, and the city council rolled back the renaming decision. A planned election season photo opportunity, where Lewis and the city council would throw the ceremonial first shovel full of dirt at the Ranchero Road Underpass' groundbreaking, was shelved.

In 2009 -- not an election year -- the city hopes it will finally be breaking ground for real. In August, word came that the environmental impact documents for the project had at long last received state and federal approval, meaning the city could begin moving onto the next stage of the project: buying up right of way to build the underpass. Once that's completed, construction will take 18 to 24 months, depending on the weather.

New city council, school board

New faces are on the city council and school board as the city and school district face a year of economic uncertainty.

In November, Planning Commissioner Paul Bosacki was elected to the city council. In December, in the annual changing of the guard, councilman Thurston "Smitty" Smith was chosen mayor. Smith understands the economic realities facing the city as well as anyone: A small businessman who runs a concrete pumping business out of his home, Smith's felt the economic downturn in his wallet.

Over on the school board, in an unusual move, the executive members stayed the same, with school board president Robert Kirk retaining the presidency. But the theoretically rock-solid bloc of previous years may be showing some cracks: When new school board member Chris Bentley nominated former board vice-president Lee Rogers for the top spot, Rogers spent a long time staring down at the papers in front of her, shaking her head while Kirk waited for her to say anything.

Kirk's three-person majority gained a likely fourth in newly elected Anthony Riley, a friend of both Kirk and Kirk's son Mark, whom he works with in the San Bernardino County government. But Rogers worked closely with Kirk during their first two years on the school board, and a break in their relationship could mean a political opponent who knows both his plans and long-term thinking.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.