January 15, 2021
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West County looks for alternatives

By: Cassandra May Albaugh
November 13, 2020

The West Sonoma County Union High School District held another special meeting on November 6. It was related to the fast approaching consolidation decision. During three previous town hall meetings, the community asked them not to rush this decision. Accepting that declining enrollment and rising expenditures are real, the community at the last town hall rallied around the theme of “we’re not against consolidation, but we are against the rush to make that decision.” They pleaded to slow down and allow the community to be creative and perhaps find ways to address the structural deficit without having to consolidate their beloved high schools into a single campus.

One suggestion was to consider a short-term parcel tax to bridge the district for a couple of years. Although that seem to be a “kick the can down the road” proposal, the concept is that such a pause would allow time for other budget solutions to be explored. Specifically mentioned was the possibility of a West Sonoma County unification study merging various elementary schools with the high schools into a single district. That won’t be ready for at least a year according to the timeline previously discussed. But that was the “ask” from the community, so this special meeting was a response.

This meeting wasn’t to authorize putting a parcel tax on the ballot next year. Rather, it was whether to authorize a survey of registered voters to see if they’d be receptive to a “short term” parcel tax. Part of the district’s budget short fall is because an existing parcel tax is expiring. That tax brought the district over a million dollars each year. Without that revenue, although they can survive this year and next, by the 2022-23 school year, they’d have a two-million-dollar deficit. A two- or three-year parcel tax would not solve all the budget problems, but it would give them time to look for alternatives to consolidating high schools. 

The board was divided. Some agreed that even if the tax passed, it was just delaying the inevitable decision to consolidate. It would not solve the structural deficit. The underlying issues of declining enrollment and rising costs were not going away. They felt it was unfair to ask taxpayers to pay more taxes just to delay the decision for a couple of years. That the decision to consolidate, or “bite the bullet” should be made without delay. 

Others said the community made this ask and the board should respect it. At the very least, a survey at a cost of between $6,000-$6,500 would allow the district to test the waters and gather additional information. It also would further the goal of community engagement. The survey could be done, and the data presented to them at their next regular board meeting on November 18. If favorable, they’d have another option to consider. If unfavorable, the option becomes moot. Of course, if public opinion is favorable, additional cost in the thousands of dollars to place the measure on the ballot would be required. Obviously, there would be no guarantee that it would pass.

Two dozen community members spoke during the public comments. 140 were in attendance on zoom and an additional 35 watched via YouTube. Most, but not all, of the speakers were supportive of at least doing the survey. Those not in favor, hit the themes of just delaying the inevitable and this has been going on for years so now is the time to bite the bullet.

It was touch and go whether the vote to authorize the funds for this survey (or poll) would pass. Early on it appears that it would fail on a vote of 3-2. Board President Jeanne Fernandes along with trustees Ted Walker and Angie Lewis appeared to be leaning against, while trustee Kellie Noe was assertively pushing to do the survey and trustee Diane Landry was supportive but uncertain how she would vote. But the tide turned. Noe shared that if the board didn’t conduct the test, the community would likely do their own test. That the board wouldn’t have control of the process or assurance about the validity of any results presented to them by way of a community effort. Control was the deciding factor for Fernandes. If it was going to be done, then the board should do it. So, she joined Noe and Landry in voting Aye. Walker and Lewis voted nay. On a vote of 3-2 passing, the survey will be conducted.