West Sonoma County Union High School District held their regular meeting on Wednesday November 18. The five-hour marathon meeting was attended by over 300 community members either through Zoom or YouTube links. The agenda was jam-packed as the district continues to struggle with declining attendance and revenues resulting in another structural deficit to overcome.
There was supposed to be a discussion and possible vote on potential consolidation of their high schools to address that deficit. However, they ran out of time. They’ve scheduled a special meeting for Monday November 23 at 6 p.m. to address that item. They will also address a possible Transit Occupancy Tax (TOT) ballot measure proposed by Supervisor Lynda Hopkins to the board of supervisors to provide additional revenues for the school district. Her proposal was agreed to with a 4-1 vote of the board at first reading. She’ll make a presentation during the district’s special board meeting.
The meeting started with public comments, mostly from Forestville/El Molino community members, supporting Hopkin’s TOT effort. They seem united in looking for creative ways to provide bridge funding for the district. They want the consolidation decision paused and avoided for the next few years. Many were either angry or disappointed in Board President Jeanne Fernandes for her comments about the TOT at the supervisor’s meeting and in the media. Some called for her immediate resignation. However, Fernandes had a one-on-one call with Hopkins about the potential tax. She stated she may have a change of mind/heart based on the call. During routine reports, Trustee Kellie Noe proposed the special meeting to consider the TOT. There is a tight deadline to consider whether the school board is in support or opposition to that tax. It was later when time ran out that the consolidation decision was tabled until that meeting.
The board then approved the Comprehensive Coordinated Early Intervening Service Plan (CCEIS) presented by Director of Special Education Laura Schmitt. Then they approved the monthly personnel report with Trustee Angie Lewis abstaining because her husband was part of the report. After a public hearing, they approved the district’s initial proposal for contract negotiations with the Teachers Association and accepted the association’s proposal for consideration during the negotiations.
Moving on, they considered approval of a potential ballot measure for a Parcel Tax. This item took up the most time. As previously reported, it was an “ask” from the El Molino community as an alternative to having to make a consolidation decision now. The board funded a survey by Greg Isom to test whether a potential short-term parcel tax measure was feasible and likely to be passed. He presented his survey results and stuck around to answer questions from the public and the board. During public comments about two dozen speakers spoke in support of putting the parcel tax on the ballot although many didn’t agree with how Isom’s survey was worded. He had tested the community about various levels of parcel taxes. Any parcel tax ballot measure would have to obtain 66.667 percent of Yes votes to pass.
The bottom line, as Isom defended the wording and survey methodology, was that a parcel tax would have a tough time passing the two thirds threshold. His survey found that before giving details or what is called voter education, support for such a tax was only 68 percent with another half percent leaning yes. 3.8 percent were undecided. After voter education, that support dropped to 63.5 percent with 1.8 percent leaning yes. Undecideds rose to 6 percent. Compared to the last survey for the parcel tax passed last year, levels of support within the community have significantly declined.
Given the difficulty of campaigning during COVID, the impacts of the pandemic on community members income and employment, the likelihood of the TOT being a competing tax measure next year and a sense of tax fatigue within the community; the slim margin of potential support all contributed to a sense that this parcel tax suggestion should not move forward. Despite the vigorous support of the Forestville speakers, the board was also concerned that even if passed it’s just kicking the consolidation decision down the road and wouldn’t address the structural deficit problem. In addition, they were concerned about the potential cost of sponsoring the ballot measure which is estimated to be in the range of 90-180 thousand dollars. Those funds would come out of the general operating funds and put additional stress on the budget and programs this year and next.
The board voted 3-2 against placing a parcel tax on the ballot next year. Noe and Lewis voted in favor given that a vote was required; however, it seems they would have liked to table the vote until the special meeting to retain it as an option to consider. Fernandes joined outgoing trustees Ted Walker and Diane Landry in opposition. Finally, Superintendent Toni Beal presented the results of a survey sent to students, staff and parents concerning the potential school consolidation.