January 15, 2021
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Buying Time – WSCUHSD

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
November 27, 2020

When time ran out at the November 18 board meeting, the West Sonoma County Union High School District scheduled a special meeting for November 23. Another marathon meeting covered three agenda items. Originally, it was to be one item – a discussion about Supervisor Lynda Hopkin’s proposed Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT). Then it was two, as the board moved the consolidation decision from the eighteenth to the twenty third. Then it became three. 

The proposal to move forward on a parcel tax ballot measure was defeated by a 3-2 vote at the November 18 meeting, but it was resurrected for a second look at this meeting. Trustee Kellie Noe said new information became available. She said one reason trustees voted against this issue last time, was the cost of placing the measure on the March 2021 ballot. Some felt it was a risk, paying thousands of dollars to fund a special election that would make the budget hole larger, if the parcel tax failed. Yet, this new information was a potential to reduce the cost and thus the risk.

Hopkins reported that with both a parcel tax and her TOT measure on the ballot, the cost of the election would be split between the county and school district. This would save the county $30,000 with a similar savings to the school district. The county’s savings would go back into their Community Investment and Tourism Impact Fund. She encouraged the school board to apply for a grant from that fund to further offset the cost of placing the parcel tax on the ballot. This time the board unanimously approved going forward with a parcel tax effort. Because of a December 4 filing deadline, an authorizing resolution will be presented at yet another special meeting on November 30.

Then the board moved on to resolution #9. This was a resolution for the district to support the county’s proposal to place a transit occupancy tax measure on the March 2021 ballot. If passed, the estimated 2.7 million dollars annually would be used to support both West County’s emergency medical and rescue services and their school districts. Each would get one-half of the revenue generated. If passed, this would increase the current 12% TOT to 16 percent. The resolution also passed unanimously.

The final item was the along awaited decision on whether to move forward or not with consolidation of the district’s high schools due to declining enrollment and rising costs resulting in a structural deficit. Superintendent Toni Beal and Chief Business Official Jeff Ogston gave a presentation reviewing the options and the reasons for considering a consolidation. Originally with four scenarios’, a fifth was added based on input from the community. This fifth option was to consolidate Analy and El Molino into the Analy campus and move Laguna and the District Office to the El Molino site. 

By 2022-23 school year, the district is projected to have 2.2-million-dollar deficit. If Option Five was adopted, the district would save 1.21 million dollars. No additional classrooms or facilities would be needed. They could also apply for a California Environmental Quality Act Exemption (CEQA) in lieu of conducting a full CEQA study since this isn’t closing a school or leaving a site vacant. An exemption could be granted as early as February 2021 whereas a full study would take at least until June 2021. Getting the exception would allow the district to avoid the turmoil of sending out layoff notices to teachers and staff in March and multiple program reductions.

The board gave staff direction to come back with resolutions for approval of this option at the special meeting next week. But the reality is, that when approved, this still may not be the final word on consolidation. Call it kicking the can down the road, or punting the decision, if passed the resolutions are really a placeholder and a way to buy time. The district is required to submit a Fiscal Recovery Plan by March 2021 that shows how the deficit will be closed. On paper, with an additional $400 thousand savings to be cut elsewhere, this option does that. But the option isn’t a final decision either. If the parcel tax or the TOT measure passes or additional state funding becomes available, the district can revise their recovery plan based on new revenues. A consolidation decision could then be put off for another few years as they look for ways to save all the high schools.