The issues motivating the five candidates vying for the Santa Rosa school board range from making smart budget choices to expanding pre-school education to fostering stronger ties between local schools and their surrounding neighborhoods.
But one gut-wrenching issue this year — the decision to close Doyle Park Elementary School and cede part of the campus to the new French-American Charter School — has spawned key discussions among most of the candidates. These include, among other things, the need to bridge the gap between the school district and Latino parents, ensuring that no school is ever closed without a thorough public process and doing more to address student segregation in the district.
In the case of attorney Jenni Klose — one of two challengers running for the board — the Doyle Park episode was in some ways the catalyst for her candidacy. Her sister taught at Doyle Park for 14 years and her family has over the years maintained strong ties to the school.
"In watching all the (board) meetings, Doyle Park was referred on numerous occasions as a failing school," Klose said. "The question was never posed, &‘should we find out why?'"
Brian Noble, the other challenger and also an attorney, said Doyle Park's closure unnecessarily pitted two communities against each other, Doyle Park families and the families of children who had signed up for the French charter school. Noble's two children are among the school's 245 students.
"A school closure needs to have a due process," he said. "Pitting communities against each other ... that should never have happened."
The school board voted in March to close Doyle Park, citing declining enrollment and low test scores. Doyle Park supporters filed a lawsuit alleging, among other things, the decision was unfair to Doyle Park's majority Latino students.
The lawsuit was ultimately settled, with both sides agreeing to share the school for the 2012-2013 school year. But the following school year, the French charter school will take over the entire campus.
School district officials argued that low enrollment put the school's expenses during the 2010-2011 school year at $180,000 over revenues. It was one of many budget dilemmas school board members faced this year.
Sonoma County's largest school district has lopped six days — including five instructional days — from the current school year, which equates to a 3.25 percent pay cut to teachers. The board also has moved to increase class sizes, slash transportation funding and drop its reserve budget from 3 percent to one percent of total spending.
In all, the 16,500-student district cut $8.3 million — 6.4 percent — from what had been a $130 million budget for 2012-13 and could be faced with $13 million in additional cuts if Proposition 30 fails Nov. 6, according to district officials.
For some, the Doyle Park controversy drove a wedge between the district and the school's supporters and parents, many of them Latino. Latino activists viewed the move as unfair to Latino and immigrant students.
There are four board seats on the ballot. Three of the five candidates, Larry Haenel, Donna Jeye and Laura Gonzalez, are incumbents who said they have unfinished business on the board. Haenel and Jeye both voted in support of closing Doyle Park while Gonzalez voted against it.
Asked whether he would do anything different the next time a possible school closure comes up, Haenel said it is "always valuable to examine our process and to learn from our experience." But he said sometimes tough decisions based on fiscal responsibility have to be made for the good of the entire district.