The West Sonoma County Union High School District continues to hold meetings about consolidation of high schools due to declining enrollment and fiscal concerns. They’re improving each time. During the first on October 20, they were criticized for lack of notice to the community. They tried to present too much information not pertinent to the “consolidation” discussion. At the second town hall, which was scheduled at the last minute, the word obviously got out. Over 500 attendees were present on the Zoom channel and more than 100 participated on a new YouTube broadcast. Although they had a neutral moderator, the district still got blasted as emotions were running high.
The first two, however, were important. The district was able to present facts and figures highlighting why this decision is even on the table. If the community didn’t know about the last ten years of these enrollment/fiscal issues, they did now. Questions were asked and many were answered. Those that weren’t got put into a frequently asked question section on the district website. So, tuning into the third town hall you wondered what would happen this time.
The meeting held on November 4 was much improved, more organized and less emotion and more education. About 400 attendees were on the Zoom link with 82 on the YouTube channel, so attendance was down a bit. It still ran four hours and over 50 speakers had a chance to comment. Superintendent Toni Beal and Chief Business Official Jeff Ogston presented budget realities, four possible scenarios and the next steps.
Scenario One was no consolidation and no budget reductions. In this scenario, the budget would be deemed qualified at the board’s December 9 meeting. When that happens, the county requires a fiscal recovery plan by second interim in March. If reductions aren’t identified, the budget is declared negative. The district would lose their ability to borrow; most likely run out of cash in June 2022 and couldn’t pay their bills. If they seek a loan from the state; it’s likely the state would assign a state administrator. The board would then be only advisory and lose local control of decisions on programs, cuts and spending. Scenario Two wasn’t much better. It was no consolidation but with budget reductions. Beal laid out likely options to be considered to close projected deficits. Reducing instruction from seven periods to six, cutting out 30 sections of electives ranging from music, to art, to AP courses. Reducing staff and administrative positions. Eliminating sports programs. Would that be worse than consolidation?
Scenario Three and Four were to consolidate but the difference was in timing. In three, it would occur in 2022-23 school year. In four, it would be done in the 2021-22 school year. If done next year, the deficit would be covered because of the savings in two years. If not done until 2022-23, the savings are less, and reductions elsewhere would still have to be found. So instead of 30 sections, perhaps only 15 sections would be cut. The reductions in staff, both certified and classified might be less but would still be likely.
The moderator then set ground rules and invited speakers for comments. Most speakers stayed on topic and adhered to the rules. That meant they focused on the consolidation decision, not which location. That meant they stayed within their three-minute time limit. That meant they didn’t threaten or make personal attacks. They discussed a person’s idea and not the person. But not all. Some had to be cut off for exceeding their time. Some continued to be angry. Some continued to threaten to take their kids out of the district if “their campus” closed. Some couldn’t resist arguing for their school to be the campus to remain. But overall, more somber and tempered comments were heard. One common theme was “I’m not against consolidation, rather I’m against the rush to make the decision.”
The acceptance of the budget realities was apparent. Keith Miller said, “the numbers don’t lie.” Patrick Nagle told the board “there is no choice but to consolidate” and “it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road.” Supervisor Lynda Hopkins urged the district “to take a pause” saying she is “not opposing consolidation” rather she is against rushing into decisions. She suggested we ask voters for a three-year bridge funding in a parcel tax measure in March next year. Sara Sharp said she is “not against but this is the wrong time.” Adam Parks however said, “there is no time to wait.” Daniel Gill said, “cutting programs is unfathomable.” Grant Schwall also favored consolidation to save programs.
The day after the meeting, I interviewed Loretta Castleberry about the town hall. She created and moderates a 4.4 thousand member Analy Alumni Facebook Group. She’s been providing facts and figures on that page to her membership. Both her and her husband’s families go back generations with Analy, but they have roots in both communities. She taught for thirty years in a Guerneville Elementary School. Her brother-in-law coached for El Molino and her husband did the same at Analy. This issue wasn’t new to her. Seven or eight years ago, she participated on a community committee of 50 plus folks struggling with these same issues.
She understands the seriousness of the problem. For her, the bottom line is to do the “best things for the kids.” In her opinion, that is to consolidate, regardless of campus chosen, to make sure electives and sports don’t get cut. She said if they do, that’s a “death spiral” for the district. She was also intrigued by a possible fifth option suggested to the board at the town hall meeting. That option was to move El Molino students to the Analy site and move Laguna and the district office to the El Molino site. She’s waiting to see the cost savings on that option. That, and the consolidation issue will be again discussed at the regular board meeting to be held on November 18.