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July 5, 2020
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Two steps forward... one step back

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
December 20, 2019

The last school board meeting of 2019 for the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District was held at Mountain Shadows Educational Center Conference Room, 7165 Burton Avenue, Rohnert Park, Tues., Dec. 17 from 6:15 p.m. until 9:29 p.m. Much of this three-plus hour meeting, involved the normal end-of-year reporting and designation of roles and committees for the new year. This included election of the Board President Leffler Brown for a second year in a row. Trustee Chrissa Gillies was again elected Board Clerk. Trustee Jennifer Wiltermood was once more elected to represent the district on the Sonoma County Committee on School District Organization. Various trustees were designated to represent the board on a wide variety of committees to include budget, facilities and Special Education. 

The schedule of regular board meetings for 2020 was not approved; only the Jan. meeting was approved. That was because after discussion the board indicated they wanted twice per month meetings with a second meeting being a “Study Session” and possible business meeting as needed. Therefore, Superintendent Watenpaugh will restructure the 2020 meeting schedule and request approval by the board at the Jan. meeting. After the normal Student Board member and other reports, the Consent Agenda was approved by a vote of 5-0. This agenda contained multiple non-controversial items ranging from the approval of previous minutes to commercial warrants (bills) for the district from Nov. 2019; from approval of personnel actions and services or contracts to acceptance of Credo’s annual report. The rest of the meeting, perhaps the heart of the meeting, was focused on Educational Services, Business and Operations Services and Board Services. 

Perhaps a bit of background explains why these three areas deserve the most focus by the board. The first half of the 2019-2020 school year has been a challenging period for the board and the school district.  Those challenges include finding a permanent Superintendent to lead the district, fiscal issues to include deficit spending and declining enrollment within the district as well as an Achievement Gap between student measurements and State Standards. Board President Brown said all issues needed to be dealt with; however, the one that keeps him up at night is Student Achievement. He said, “we could be a lot further if we had more parental involvement” and he’ll be looking for ways to increase that aspect of closing the gap next year.

One ongoing challenge has been in finding a permanent replacement for Dr. Robert Haley, the former superintendent who resigned suddenly in Sept. of 2018. In Oct., the board, on a divided vote of 3-2, hired former Superintendent Tony Roehrick of Rincon Valley School District in Santa Rosa as the interim Superintendent. In June 2019, just before the start of this school year, it looked like the search for a permanent superintendent to guide the district forward was successful. At the regular board meeting that month, it was anticipated the announcement for the new superintendent would be made. Instead Board President Leffler Brown reported that the selected candidate withdrew their name from consideration for personal reasons. In July 2019, the board voted 4-1 to bring on Dr. Michael Watenpaugh to serve as interim superintendent until Nov. 30, 2020 while they again commenced searching for a permanent superintendent to lead the district forward. The goal appears to be to find that candidate early in 2020 so they can be in place for the 2020-2021 school year.

The other major continuing challenge is the fiscal status of the district. The Chief Business Official, Robert Marical, makes a monthly report at each regular meeting. This month’s report again shows declining enrollment with another decrease of 17 students from the previous month. All year, each regular board meeting has shown the same trend line; rising costs and declining enrollments. This board and the district staff have been working hard on these issues. They’ve used a budget committee to recommend savings.  The board, and Watenpaugh, also met with Marical for a special board “Budget Study Session” on Dec. 10 designed to bring the board up-to-speed on budget and spending concerns. 

One bright note, at this meeting, the board was able to approve by a vote of 4-0-1 the First Interim Report as of Oct.31, 2019. This report certifies the district’s ability to meet its financial obligations for the remainder of the current fiscal year as well as the following two fiscal years.  In addition, the district is projected to meet the required three percent reserve for economic uncertainties for the remainder of this fiscal year. The current multi-year projections indicate that the district will meet the three percent reserve for economic uncertainties in all three years. 

Yet it appears for every two steps taken forward, especially on fiscal issues, the district is forced to take a step back. 

On the horizon next year are potential increases in expenses such as negotiated contracts with the district’s teachers and the associated increases of benefits and contributions to health and pension plans.  Also, the minimum wage for hourly workers continues to rise each year. And every year the costs of materials, equipment replacement, and costs such as electricity and other services rise. With declining enrollment, revenues aren’t expected to increase. For every 10 students lost, the district loses approximately $90,000 of revenue. When expenses continue to increase, and revenues decrease you get a deficit.  When this is a trend regardless of the economy, it is known as a “Structural Deficit.”  Trustee Gilles said this has been the trend “for at least five years.” Thus, to eliminate such a deficit, you either have to raise revenue (taxes or increased enrollment) or decrease spending (cuts). So, unless the declining enrollment can be reversed it is likely that the board and the district will have to wrestle with those decisions again next year.

At this meeting, the board was provided an overview of student enrollment data during the summer of 2019 by Matt Marshall who is the Director of Student Services. The data highlighted student transiency and schools of choice and compared enrollment numbers from May, Sept. and Nov.. The transiency rate was seven percent which means that 428 students that submitted registration packets did not show up to start school in the district. Of that number 284 students were identified as having moved: 70 out-of-state, 78 out-of-county and 136 elsewhere in Sonoma County. 144 students were found to have chosen a different school (117) or other miscellaneous reasons (27) such as graduated or earned a GED during the summer. Of more concern to Trustee Gillies and others were the 60-plus students that left after school started. That meant a loss of over a half million dollars in planned revenue from the budget. The board wants to see the reasons, if possible, for those losses too. Dr. Watenpaugh said they were working on gathering that type of data.

The board also took up the fiscal issue of accelerating the payment of minimum wage to $15 per hour in advance of that required by current California law. Marical outlined the current requirement of $13 on Jan.1, 2020; then $14 by Jan. 1, 2021; and, finally $15 on Jan. 1, 2022. He shared the increased cost for just following state law on the district’s budget and then the impacts if the board decided to accelerate the minimum wage to an earlier date than required. All trustees appreciate the work of these employees, many part-time and the contributions they bring to the schools; and, they would love to approve implementing the $15 minimum wage earlier than required by law. However, given the current trend of deficit spending, declining enrollment and increasing costs; fear was expressed that voting to approve this was a lose/lose situation. Such an acceleration might result in a loss of a position or two elsewhere or require additional cuts in the budget going forward. Nevertheless, Trustee Gillies moved to accelerate the minimum wage effective Jan. 1, 2020. The motion was seconded by Trustee Nonn but was defeated on a vote of 3-2.

In other related matters, Julie Synyard, the Assistant Superintendent, presented the board an overview of the School District’s dashboard.  The California Dashboard is the state’s accountability system that details outcomes for students.  The California Dashboard is an interactive online tool that describes how local educational agencies are meeting the needs of all of their students.  The Dashboard contains information and reports regarding school districts and individual school site performance.  This is where much of the Achievement Gap can be seen especially for English language learners and disadvantaged youth such as foster or homeless kids and those in Special Education programs. The district is investigating ways to improve student achievements but Synyard noted the below standard achievements are not limited just to our district but also to most other districts in the county and state.

Shifting to better news, the board also received the annual report of the Parcel Tax Oversight Committee at this meeting. Two meetings were held in 2019 and the annual report shows that all Parcel Tax money was appropriately spent and accounted for during the year. The board also approved on a vote of 5-0 the updated policy and associated administrative regulation on bullying which includes cyberbullying among other updates. Watenpaugh and other trustees spoke about the Rancho Cotate Cougars Division 3-A CIF State Championship Game and congratulated them on their outstanding season. Watenpaugh and Brown both spoke with pride about the district getting the Business Journal’s Top Projects in the North Bay Award for the Theater, Academic, Gymnasium (TAG) Building project at the Rancho Cotate High School. Watenpaugh also announced the Lawrence Jones Middle School Showcase and Ribbon Cutting ceremony will be Jan. 30, 2020.

Marcial said while both revenues and expenses are up, the short-term ability to meet fiscal needs are being assisted by one-time dollars and the ability to draw down the reserves. Watenpaugh also has the board’s approval to establish a Superintendent’s Budget Advisory Committee consisting of himself, Marical, two  board members and a number of committee members drawn from district parents, unions, school sites and the district office to meet at least once a month to explore ways to deal with budget and fiscal issues in 2020 and beyond. In summary, the district is doing okay but there are storm clouds on the horizon to be concerned about and hard decisions will have to be made next year.