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It's common knowledge among those who coach Little League that practicing on school playing fields in Santa Rosa is a crapshoot. You get what you get.

The grass is sometimes so high, you're better off having the kids stay on the blacktop where they can at least find a grounder — if not field one.

But the problem of unkempt fields has gotten noticeably worse in recent years. The conditions during a soccer game I attended in the fall were particularly atrocious. The field was a patchwork of hard ground and grass groves, spots so thick they were dead zones for any rolling sphere. In addition, two sprinkler heads had not fully retracted, forcing a coach to cover them with orange safety cones. In several locations, there were mud puddles the size of dining room tables, apparently the products of a malfunctioning watering system.

And if my son and his teammates managed to maneuver around those obstacles, there were, we discovered later, potholes scattered around the field like land mines.

<NO1><NO>An image that has stayed with me since is of my 13-year-old's best friend Blake picking himself up after having fallen chest-first in a puddle while going for the ball. As he held his muddy hands far away from his body, he was clearly embarrassed and frustrated. So were the rest of us.

But he kept playing. Why? Because that's all he knows. If he and his friends want to play soccer, this is what they get. This is what we give them.

That picture came to mind as I talked with Santa Rosa School Board President Larry Haenel over coffee on Thursday. Haenel looks a little worn on the edges himself these days, sort of like that soccer field.

This controversy about closing or not closing Doyle Park Elementary School has taken its toll. He describes it as a "roller coaster," but it's not clear what the high points have been. The only one I can see is possibly the settlement of the lawsuit that was filed over how the school was closed. But even that's iffy.

The deal reached last week assures Doyle Park will remain open at least one more year. The school will enroll up to 180 students and share the campus with the French-American charter school. Meanwhile, the district will continue to explore starting a Spanish language dual immersion school.

Sounds good. But there are plenty of unknowns. Some will be answered on June 7, the date by which Doyle Park parents need to pick a school for their child. If any of the classes third grade and under end up with fewer than 18 students, they will be considered "not financially feasible" and those students, most likely, will be moved to other schools. The same will be true of fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade classes if any have fewer than 25 students.

Depending on how parents respond, there's a potential for giving Doyle Park new life. There's also potential to see the school fade away, class by class.

Did the school district handle this well? No. In retrospect, the school board probably should have been upfront from the beginning about closing Doyle Park and replacing it with the French-American charter. Instead, the board tried to finesse the two and keep them separate issues. But parents and teachers at Doyle Park would have none of it.

To his credit, Haenel has now been visiting each elementary school in the district to talk to teachers and staff and hear their thoughts about the closing. No other school board members or staff members are coming along. It's just him.

As a teacher for 36 years in the system and former president of the local teachers unions, "I'm the right guy to do it," he says dolefully.

On some campuses, teachers and faculty say they understand why the board made the decision it did. At others, not so much. He's gotten an earful.

"There are some strong emotions," he says.

Give him credit for standing up and taking his lumps. But what can't be lost here is that this is not about mean-hearted school board members. This is not a good-guy-vs-bad-guy thing.

It's about money. Pure and simple. Specifically, it's about the shortage of it. Local educators, parents and others are all fighting over table scraps.

The fact is, the Santa Rosa school board did not have a choice. Given the declining enrollment and languishing academic performance at Doyle Park and the financial realities facing the entire district, it could not afford the status quo. It could not let Doyle Park stay open, and it could not afford to let the French-American charter school go to another district.

California schools get their money based on how many students they have and whether they come to class. It's just the way it is. This is why the Santa Rosa school district is forced to look at developing charter schools that attract and retain students.

At last count, the French charter has 260 kids signed up and ready to enroll. Another 100 are reportedly on a waiting list. What makes the French school so attractive is that 1) it's something parents want and 2) the majority of those students — all but about 93, I'm told — will be coming from outside the district.

Between closing Doyle Park — which would save some $400,000 a year — and opening the charter, it means in excess of $800,000 in additional revenue for the district each year. That's equivalent to adding back in two instructional days for every student.

Santa Rosa schools are not alone in this. California's schools were in poor shape five years ago when the state's per-pupil spending was the second lowest in the nation. Since then, the bottom has fallen out. According to a recent analysis by state Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor, per-pupil spending, on average, has decreased more than 5 percent in California schools. One in four schools say it's down more than 15 percent. Spending on books and supplies has dropped 22 percent, and one in five districts have cut the school year by as much as five instructional days.

Overall, the state has 11 percent fewer teachers since 2007 while class sizes have grown, on average, about three kids per class. Meanwhile, almost all schools have been forced to cut music programs and other electives, defer maintenance and let the grass grow long on playing fields.

What's clear is that these problems — and fights — are going to get worse if some version of the governor's tax proposal doesn't pass in the fall.

Does the state still need to get a handle on its pension problems? Absolutely. Can government still do a better job of controlling spending? Certainly. But California can't continue to let education funding — and our kids' futures — go down the drain while we fight about all the other stuff.

It should be as clear as the mud all over my son's best friend. Our children deserve better than this.

Paul Gullixson is editorial director for The Press Democrat. Email him at paul.gulllixson@pressdemocrat.com.