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August 9, 2020
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School District – What now?

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
July 3, 2020

Normally the last school board meeting of the year is routine. One school year ends, the next one starts in the fall. Graduations are over. Students and staff go on summer vacation. However, this is anything but a normal year. There were more questions than answers at the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District virtual board meeting held on Tuesday June 23. 

The first half of the meeting was focused on routine items. Approving the minutes or ratifying actions such as paying bills, budget transfers, and personnel actions since the last meeting. Necessary Educational Services Contracts for the 2020-21 school year were also approved. The COVID-19 Written Operations Report received approval, as did three routine annual resolutions allowing budget transfers. Those resolutions allow the district to manage cash flow and pay bills throughout the year.

This meeting is also when the proposed budget for the next school year gets approved. It requires a Public Hearing. But since there were no public comments, the hearing was pro forma. Chief Business Official, Robert Marical led the discussion and answered questions from the board. He noted that passing the budget resolution was important because it allows spending to continue. It was put together using the best available data right now. But that data has many unknowns. Because of COVID-19, funding from Federal and State sources is uncertain. Contributions from the Casino can’t be counted on. Expenses for safety and health of students and staff will go up when schools reopen. 

Even before COVID-19 the district was being fiscally challenged. But it appeared manageable. Even if funding from the State isn’t reduced, yet to be determined, or if additional funds come from the Federal level, Marical reminded the board this would-be one-time money. It might lessen the hole, but he said he thought they wouldn’t be “out of the woods for a couple of years.” By using the reserve, drawing it down to almost the 3 percent minimum level, 2020-21 met budget requirements. Future years may take the reserves below 3 percent. Marical said many districts are experiencing this same uncertainty in budget planning. As data becomes available, projections will be revised. The hard look will occur in December 2020 when the board must certify the first interim report.

After a few more routine items, the uncertainty over school reopening then took center stage. Interim Superintendent Michael Watenpaugh led the discussion, supported by the staff, about the planning process currently underway. Assistant Superintendent Julie Synyard reported out on the survey responses from 364 teachers and over 2,000 parents. She and a task force are continuing to collect data and work on protocols for reopening schools once a decision is made. Three options are under consideration. They are full reopening for in person instruction, distance learning and independent study.

Almost 60 percent of parents indicated they want full reopening. Families are feeling overwhelmed with the distance learning efforts. A theme emerged around “I am not a teacher, this is really, really hard.” Other themes revolved around safety, wearing of masks, student mental health, absence of social interaction and the need for better training on how to use technology for online training. One decision made by the district was that a single online platform, Google Meets, will be used for future online learning efforts. Another was that Richard Crane would open on July 15 and would be distance learning only.

Watenpaugh expressed how difficult it is for deciding when, and how, to reopen schools. Although the Sonoma County Superintendents are trying to keep alignment between their districts, the guidelines keep changing and are inconsistent throughout the state. He understands that parents need as much notice as possible, so they too can plan. He could propose a plan based on today’s guidelines just to find out they changed the following day. And whatever the proposal, any changes would have to be approved by the three unions or the district may be subject to grievance. 

The task force is continuing to gather data and make plans. The goal is to have a plan as soon as possible based on the most recent, best available data, keeping the safety of students and staff at the forefront. Watenpaugh said there is “likely to be a mismatch between what families want and what we can provide.” Usually August would be the next school board meeting. Yet with more questions than answers, a special meeting was scheduled for Tuesday July 7 to continue working towards a decision about re-opening schools in the fall.