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For the second time in two years, the Cotati-Rohnert Park School District is discussing plans to reopen La Fiesta Elementary School.

The campus on Limon Way has been shuttered since 2008 when Sonoma County's third-largest school district, facing mounting budget problems, closed both La Fiesta and Gold Ridge elementary schools to save $587,000 annually.

The latest proposal includes a potential partnership with Sonoma State University through which undergraduates pursuing degrees in early childhood studies would spend time in La Fiesta's classrooms through field placements.

The increased instructor-to-student ratio would allow teachers to launch unique lessons, according to Chiara Bacigalupa, associate professor of education at Sonoma State and a lead player in linking the university to the school district.

"Usually, one of the barriers to doing really interesting curriculum is not enough hands in the classroom," she said.

Both Sonoma State and Cotati-Rohnert Park School District officials must sign off on a memorandum of understanding outlining the partnership. Officials from both sides said they expect a deal to be reached.

A meeting for interested parents is scheduled for Jan. 24.

"I think it's going to be a big deal," said Sarah Rapp, a student in Sonoma State's master of education program and mother of a kindergartner in the district who has helped spearhead the plan.

"Probably the most important thing is this back-and-forth learning, ongoing learning, that will happen between professors and teachers," Rapp said. "(Professors) will provide professional development and the teachers will, in turn, provide what is really going on in classrooms."

The curriculum is being discussed as project-based, inquiry-driven and hands-on, backers said.

"What I'm hoping is that this school can break free of the sort of mold that schools have been in for the 10 to 12 years, ever since No Child Left Behind has come on board. So much emphasis has been on testing," Bacigalupa said.

The proposal is to teach grade-level standards based on students' interests, whether it's bulldozers or space flight.

"Is that unrealistic? Absolutely not," Bacigalupa said. "It takes work, though."

The Cotati-Rohnert Park School District is floating the new plan while still battling declining enrollment and deficit spending.

The district is the only one in Sonoma County in negative financial status, meaning it is not projected to meet minimum reserve and cash-flow requirements over two years.

Those budget issues loom over any discussion of new programs, officials said.

"We are still deficit spending. We still have to be very conscious with that," longtime trustee Ed Gilardi said. "It's not something we are going to be able to pump a lot of money into."

The 5,770-student district is expected to spend $48.2 million this year, with only $45 million in projected revenue.

"We are spending down the fund balance from the prior year. That is not sustainable," said Anne Barron, the district's chief business official.

If the new school is launched, the district would maintain rental agreements with the Sonoma County Office of Education and other groups that use facilities at La Fiesta, agreements that generate more than $100,000 annually.

The new program could be a draw for families that have historically moved their children out of the district to neighboring schools -- taking state funding with them, backers said.

"We are still combating a lot of parents leaving Cotati-Rohnert Park for innovative programs in surrounding communities," Rapp said.

"I think people have a misperception about the reputation of the local district and they haven't given it a chance and they have given up on their community schools," she said. "My thing is, don't give up, ask for what you want."

About 800 students live within district boundaries but attend other public schools, according to Superintendent Robert Haley. That number does not include those students who attend private and charter schools.

The new school will focus on enrolling kindergarten and first-grade students in the first year, he said. Last year's reopening plans faltered when families expressed interest but did not want their kindergartners and older siblings attending different campuses.

"We face the same challenges we faced a year ago," he said. "We had a number of students and families that were very interested in enrolling but a had a big spread of grade levels," he said.

Board President Marc Orloff said the partnership with Sonoma State makes the current proposal different from last year's push to simply re-open La Fiesta's doors.

"There's a lot of options being offered to parents," he said. "Hopefully the tie-in with Sonoma State, that is something no other district has, at least at the elementary level."

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.