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Sonoma County's third largest school district is poised to open two schools next year as officials try to expand campus options and put an end to years of declining enrollment.

The Cotati-Rohnert School Board tonight will consider re-opening a middle school on the Burton Avenue site that until 2010 housed Mountain Shadows Middle School. In a separate move, the board is expected to approve the opening of University Elementary at La Fiesta, a partnership with Sonoma State University that will give new life to La Fiesta, one of two elementary schools closed in 2008.

"I think there was great uproar over the losing of a neighborhood school, and I think some parents left the district as a result," said Board President Marc Orloff, citing the 2010 decision to shutter Mountain Shadows, one of the district's two middle schools.

"The district has been through budget cuts, that, I don't know that they had the best benefits for kids," he said.

After the closure of Mountain Shadows, all of the district's seventh- and eighth-graders, as well as some sixth-graders in the expeditionary learning program, were placed at Creekside Middle School, which was renamed Lawrence Jones Middle School and now has nearly 900 students.

Plans for the new middle school, tentatively called Technology Middle School, call for approximately 240 sixth- and seventh-graders to enroll in the fall. The following year, the campus will grow to include eighth-graders.

The focus will be technology and project-based learning. Amy Goodwin, who is currently principal at Waldo Rohnert School, has been tapped to be principal, said Superintendent Robert Haley.

If approved, the opening will also pave the way for the district to return to housing sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders on the two middle school campuses and revert elementary schools to kindergarten through fifth-grade programs. Thomas Page School will remain a kindergarten through eighth-grade campus.

The one-time costs of opening Technology Middle School are estimated to be $135,000. Ongoing annual expenses are initially expected between $14,600 and $22,000.

For University Elementary at La Fiesta, one-time startup costs are expected to be $50,000. Annual costs are anticipated between $66,700 and $88,100.

Backers say added options for parents might entice families to stay in the district -- and bring state funding with them.

"We realize there will be some additional costs, and those will be borne by the general fund," said Haley, who took the helm in 2011. "And yes, there is the belief that, over time, we can recapture or do a better job of retaining students in our district that have left."

Cotati-Rohnert Park has long been hammered by declining enrollment and budget cuts that have pushed class sizes up and forced trustees to cut programs. In turn, students have continued to leave local schools for campuses in neighboring districts.

In 2000, about 8,300 students were enrolled in the district. Today that number is 5,770. About 800 students live within district boundaries but attend other public schools, according to Haley. That number does not include students attending private and charter schools.

The projected openings mark a dramatic change for the district, which has shut four schools since 2002.

District leaders say that while those closures seemed like sound financial moves at the time, they chased families away from the district.

"I think we lost nearly 200 students the next year" after Mountain Shadows was closed, said Anne Barron, chief business official with the district since 2011.

"When you close schools, you upset people and you make it worse."

District officials acknowledged the risk in investing in new programs while continuing to deficit spend.

Spending is projected at $48.2 million this year, with only $45 million in projected revenue. For years, Cotati-Rohnert Park has been under the direction of a fiscal minder from the Sonoma County Office of Education who has had "stay and rescind" authority over all spending.

"We are concerned about that ourselves, so we are trying to make this as cost-neutral as possible," Haley said.

Still, the district is expected to meet minimum state mandated reserve requirements in both the current year and 2013-14 and is expected to file a qualified financial report by the March 15 deadline -- the first time in years the district has not been deemed in "negative" status.

"I think it's reflective of all of the work that have all done," Haley said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671.