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Within a span of about 15 minutes Tuesday night, the Cotati-Rohnert Park School Board cast two separate votes that paved the way for the opening of two new schools in the fall -- a move that some board members said marks the resurrection of a district that has long suffered declining enrollment and budget woes.

The two 4-0 votes mean the former Mountain Shadows Middle School on Burton Avenue will open in the fall to an inaugural class of sixth- and seventh-graders under the name Technology Middle School. Eighth-graders will be added to the campus in 2014-15.

In a separate unanimous vote, trustees approved the reopening of the shuttered La Fiesta Elementary School campus as University Elementary School at La Fiesta in a partnership with Sonoma State University. The inaugural group of 48 students will serve kindergarten through second grade.

"I think that the partnership with Sonoma State and this type of program is the type that others are going to look at us and say 'We want that,' " Trustee Ed Gilardi said. "It's all about choice. It's something the community has asked for. We have been responsive to that."

La Fiesta and Gold Ridge Elementary were both closed amid a flurry of budget cuts in 2008. Mountain Shadows Middle School was closed in 2010.

The district has long been hammered by the double hits of declining enrollment and deep cuts in funding from Sacramento.

But closing campuses didn't prove to be an effective solution, said Superintendent Robert Haley, who took the lead role in the district in 2011.

"You have to take into account, if you cut a program or close a school, what will the overall impact be? You'll see that more students leave; it just exacerbates the problem," he said

Enrollment at the district has fallen from 8,300 in 2000 to 5,770 today.

For years, a fiscal minder from the Sonoma County Office of Education has had "stay and rescind" authority over district spending.

On Tuesday, the board approved a budget plan that for the first time in years cleared fiscal hurdles allowing the district to move from "negative" to "qualified" status.

Fiscal adviser Barbara Tatman told the board that the move from negative to qualified will not last under current deficit spending of $3 million a year.

"It's a fine line you are walking on. It's eggshells you are walking on for a temporary period of time," she said.

Board members acknowledged the budget tightrope, saying efforts had been made to make the two openings low-cost.

The one-time costs of opening Technology Middle School are estimated to be $135,000. Ongoing annual expenses are initially expected to be 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 to be between $66,700 and $88,600.

Under the plan, students at Monte Vista and Waldo Rohnert elementary schools would matriculate to Technology Middle School. Students at Marguerite Hahn and Evergreen elementary schools would attend Lawrence Jones Middle School.

The district will maintain an open enrollment period during which students can opt for a campus other than their neighborhood school.

Trustee Leff Brown was absent Tuesday.

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

She can be reached at 526-8671.

Press Democrat Poll

What type of warning did you receive about last October’s fires? (Multiple responses allowed)

Official alert on my landline: 5 percent

Official alert on my cellphone: 17 percent

Neighbor warned me: 14 percent

Family member or friend warned me: 28 percent

Police or fire came to my home to warn me: 5 percent

None: 43 percent

Don’t know: 1 percent

In the future, how would you like to be notified about a fire or other impending disaster?

Phone call: 31 percent

Text message: 30 percent

Email: 1 percent

Air raid siren: 28 percent

Other (specify): 7 percent

Don’t know: 3 percent

Do you think Sonoma County is more prepared today to warn you about fires or disasters than it was last year?

Yes: 54 percent

No: 31 percent

Don’t know: 15 percent

SOURCE: The Press Democrat Poll/David Binder Research

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