Four contenders are vying for two seats on the Cotati-Rohnert Park School Board in a race that is pitting claims of fresh ideas against pronouncements of seasoned experience in the face of deep budget cuts and declining enrollment.
Sonoma County's third largest school district has cut days from its student calendar, reduced professional development hours, raised and lowered class sizes, slashed teacher pay and closed schools in order to weather the long-running budgetary storm.
Every day, about 800 students leave Cotati-Rohnert Park to attend schools outside of the district. About 400 students transfer in, according to district officials.
Since 2007-08, enrollment has fallen from 6,655 to 5,757 for the current year. During that same span, expenditures have been cut by $9.8 million — from $56.2 million six years ago to $46.4 million this year.
If the Proposition 30 trigger cuts are enacted, the district could lose an additional $2.5 million this year.
But in June a ray of sunlight appeared: Voters passed a parcel tax expected to produce about $5.3 million for the district over the five-year life of the tax.
The district has also seen its state Academic Performance Index score rise from 750 out of 1,000 in 2008 to 771 this year. The state target is 800.
Incumbents contend they have steered the district through unfathomable budget cuts while developing new programs and keeping funds as close to the classroom as possible. But newcomers Jennifer Wiltermood, 43, and Mike Bowcut, 59, say not enough is being done to promote the district's programs to area families who have chosen to drive their children elsewhere rather than enroll them in Cotati-Rohnert Park schools.
"I have been talking to a lot of people. They can't pinpoint why they think it's so much better, they just say &‘It's so much better,'" said Wiltermood, a Realtor who has a child at Evergreen Elementary and one who graduated from Technology High. "They say, &‘I'm taking my kids to Santa Rosa for ArtQuest.' But did you know that we have the same type of classes? We really need to promote it."
Bowcut, chief financial officer for Nelson Staffing in Sonoma, said when he worked in the east bay he commuted hours just so his children could attend Cotati-Rohnert Park schools. Two children graduated from Rancho Cotate High School and the third is a senior there.
"We put our money where our mouth is," he said. "I can't even imagine why people would take their kids somewhere else."
Bowcut said as a trustee he'd pursue self-sustaining before- and after-school childcare programs to help working parents keep kids on local campuses.
"One of the main reasons people take their students out of town is they work in Santa Rosa and take their kids," he said.
Ed Gilardi, a 55-year-old produce manager and buyer for United Markets, has been on the board 16 years and has seen his two kids graduate from Cotati-Rohnert Park schools. The current board has made significant changes in recent years to lure families back to the district — all while enduring dramatic cuts from Sacramento, he said.
"We are trying to be as responsive as possible in making changes that don't have a financial burden on the district but can, hopefully, in the long term, increase student enrollment which obviously increases the dollars" from Sacramento, he said.