West Sonoma County Union High School District held their first board meeting of the year on January 20. The 3-hour open session, again on Zoom and YouTube, had about sixty viewers. Many routine items were addressed during the meeting. But perhaps the biggest story wasn’t on the agenda. It was discussed in closed session and briefly in public comments. The district seemingly can’t catch a break as it struggles to address the structural deficit and question of whether to consolidate their high schools as a solution to that issue.
The elephant in the room was a letter dated January 8, signed by nine parents in West County. It was sent to Superintendent Toni Beal. This letter, copying the format of a litigation demand letter, raised the issue of the at-large elections for the school board not meeting the intent of the California Voting Rights Act (CVRA). Specifically, to improve representation and avoid future litigation by changing the method to By-Trustee Area Elections. You may remember many city councils and other school boards received similar demand letters last year. The City of Rohnert Park and the Cotati Rohnert Park Unified School District went through that process, and expense. They held By-District and By-Trustee elections in 2020. The parents’ group letter also requested expansion of the board to seven trustees, the issue to be placed on the agenda for discussion at the next regular meeting and to be in place for the 2022 elections to the board.
The issue wasn’t on the agenda for the public session; however, it was discussed with legal counsel, along with status of labor negotiations, during the closed session. The letter, posted on social media, was addressed in public comments. Four of the seven public comments pertained to the issue, including comments from a couple of signatories to the letter. One speaker was puzzled. He asked why the same group that is coordinating the effort to pass the March Parcel Tax, Measure A, is now causing the district to expend funds on this issue while trying to raise funds to avoid having to consolidate high schools. Another speaker said the letter “kills Measure A” and urged the board to just “move forward on consolidation.” Although the letter may have been withdrawn by the group, once that bell has been rung, it’s unlikely to go away now.
Eleanor Gorman of Forestville, who signed the letter said in defense, that the parents’ group had “no intention in bringing a lawsuit.” Another signer, Jessalee Mills, also of Forestville acknowledged “maybe it was poor timing to do this now.” “I’m sorry people are seeing this as a threat of litigation” but she defended the letter. They thought that since other school districts had to do this, that maybe this was a topic needing pro-active discussion by the school board. I was unable to talk with Beal before submitting this article. It appears we’ll have to wait until a special or the next regular meeting to see what happens. The next regular meeting is scheduled for February 10.
In other board news, the board approved four new proposed courses for Laguna High School. They were: Statistics for Life, Sustainable Living, Construction and Web Development. They also approved a student teaching agreement between Grand Canyon University and the school district. As required by previous parcel tax measures, Chief Business Official Jeff Ogston, presented and received approval of how those funds were spent and the monthly budget update for the 2020-2021 school year. Beal also reported that the expected letter from the Sonoma County Office of Education was received. The letter agreed that the district’s budget is in a “qualified status” and therefore they are required to present a “Fiscal Recovery Plan” for the second interim budget report in March. Beal also said the information letters about Measure A were sent to staff, parents and families. It has been posted to the district website.
The other significant discussion item was Governor Newsom’s January budget proposal and how it may impact on school districts if it gets adopted. Brian Miller, Chair of the Bargaining Team for the district’s union, said it was “good news on State Budget” and made a pitch for raises even before knowing if it gets adopted. Ogston during his discussion of the proposal stressed “this is just a proposal” and if adopted while good news it won’t solve the structural deficit the district is facing. If approved the COLA increases, the reductions of contributions to employee retirement and health benefit pools, and the payment of deferrals from the state will reduce the problem of the deficit in both 2021-22 and 2022-23 but will not eliminate them. Reductions ranging from $600,000 to 1.2 million will still have to be found either by lowering expenses or raising revenues.