We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, nearly 1.5 million people used their mobile devices to visit our sites.
Already a subscriber?
Wow! You read a lot!
Reading enhances confidence, empathy, decision-making, and overall life satisfaction. Keep it up! Subscribe.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
Until next month, you can always look over someone's shoulder at the coffee shop.
Already a subscriber?
We don't just cover the North Bay. We live here.
Did You Know? In the first 10 days of the North Bay fire, we posted 390 stories about the fire. And they were shared nearly 137,000 times.
Already a subscriber?
Supporting the community that supports us.
Obviously you value quality local journalism. Thank you.
Already a subscriber?
Oops, you're out of free articles.
We miss you already! (Subscriptions start at just 99 cents.)
Already a subscriber?

Jolene Johnson uses ballet, hip-hop, jazz and modern dance to teach students about creativity, teamwork and perseverance.

But two of her three dance classes now face the budget ax at El Molino High School. If they are eliminated, leaving Johnson with a part-time job, the dance teacher would be forced to leave the Forestville campus.

“I couldn’t stay there,” Johnson said. “I couldn’t afford to live where I am, in Sonoma County, with only 60 percent of my income.”

El Molino and Analy high schools could lose more than three dozen class offerings and their seven-period school days as the West Sonoma County Union High School District seeks to close a $1.2 million budget shortfall.

The financial challenges squeezing the Sebastopol district are being felt in districts across Sonoma County.

Despite a growing economy and Gov. Jerry Brown’s pledge to provide an additional $3 billion to K-12 schools for the coming year, Sonoma County school districts are bracing for millions in spending cuts. Facing declining enrollment and ballooning costs for employee health care and pensions, district officials say they’ll have to cut staff, increase class sizes and scale back course offerings to close the budget gaps.

School trustees across the county are already making the tough calls on layoffs, facing a mid-March deadline to notify affected teachers and staff.

Santa Rosa City Schools, the county’s largest district, needs to trim $6.2 million, or about 3 percent of its operating budget. In Sonoma Valley, school board members recently approved $2.4 million in spending cuts for next year.

Santa Rosa school district officials last week presented to school board members more than two dozen recommendations from the budget advisory committee for spending cuts, totaling $7.6 million. They included slightly boosting the student-teacher ratio, eliminating the need for 27 teachers and saving the district about $2.3 million.

Teachers argued the measure will come at a cost for students.

“If you cut that many teacher jobs, we’re going to lose programs. Class sizes are going to go up, and we’re going to have fewer electives,” said Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, which represents nearly 1,000 educators.

He and dozens of other teachers packed the Feb. 14 school board meeting. They urged school board members to “use a scalpel and not hatchet” when making budget cuts after the committee also suggested eliminating the jobs of four elementary prep teachers and most of the five home and hospital teachers, who work with students unable to attend school because of medical conditions. The home and hospital teachers, who work with up to six students a day, recently saw a pay increase after the district agreed under a new collective bargaining agreement to put them on the salary schedule, rather than paying them hourly.

District officials said they’ll look at attrition to reduce layoffs. Even with retirements, which average about 30 a year, officials say they still may have to hand out pink slips next month.

Staffing costs consume about three-quarters of the Santa Rosa City Schools’ budget, said André Bell, assistant superintendent of business services. That leaves little room to cut elsewhere, he said.

“At some point, it’s going to have to touch personnel because that is the largest part of the budget,” Bell said.

Last year, the Santa Rosa school district cut $4.5 million from this year’s budget because of higher costs toward employee pensions, lower than expected state funding and errors in past budgets. The district is spending roughly $18 million on employee pensions this year, about 9 percent of its operating budget.

School board members will hold a special public meeting Wednesday to decide how to trim next year’s budget.

“There’s virtually no district in this state that’s not dealing with this,” longtime school board member Bill Carle said last week. “The hundreds of teachers that have been lost in San Diego, L.A. and a number of other areas in the last year is testament to the fact that this is not just this district.”

“There aren’t accounting errors that have created a big loss of money somewhere,” he noted. “The fact is … we’re inadequately funded in the state of California. It’s not this board’s fault. It’s not any other board fault.”

In addition to rising employee health care and pension costs, school districts across the state have seen student enrollment decrease over the last decade, in part because of changing demographics. That impacts their bottom lines since the state funds districts based on average daily attendance.

More than half the districts in the state face declining enrollment, said Mike Fine, CEO of Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state agency that provides financial guidance to school districts. And birth rates aren’t expected to go up anytime soon.

“There is no easy way to work with that. With declining enrollment, your revenue declines but you don’t lose expenditures,” he said, noting that schools still must remain open and keep the lights on.

While Gov. Brown plans to provide additional money to public schools, Fine said it won’t resolve districts’ long-term financial challenges.

The October wildfires further compounded the financial challenges for some school districts, said Steve Herrington, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

Jenni Klose, the board president, said the district as a whole will need to come together and demand changes, rather than “fighting over the little bits of crumbs the state leaves us.”

“We’re also in this disaster recovery mode, which is totally unknown,” she said. “Eight hundred of our students lost their homes in the fires, and 300 of them are not back. … We don’t know what’s going to happen in August.”

School districts continued to receive state attendance-based funding during the weeks they closed amid October’s wildfires. However, officials fear the wildfires will impact future funding levels as fewer students return. Assemblyman Jim Wood, D-Healdsburg, earlier this month introduced a bill that would extend the safeguards for attendance-based funding for another two years, allowing districts to use pre-fire average daily attendance figures.

The Piner-Olivet Union School District, located in the fire-ravaged Coffey Park neighborhood, where 1,300 homes burned, lost about 50 students after the fires. Overall, it lost 100 kids this year, or about 9 percent of its student population, according to its first interim report submitted in December to the county Office of Education.

The district will have to cut $500,000, or nearly 5 percent of its $10.6 million operating budget.

“That will be taken care of by reducing staff commensurate with our reduction to our enrollment,” said Superintendent Carmen Diaz-French, who noted 150 students in her district lost homes in the fire.

While the Bellevue Union school district in south Santa Rosa wasn’t burned in the wildfires, its enrollment has been declining over the past three years, Superintendent David Alexander said. The district of roughly 1,800 students assembled a 45-member budget advisory committee to explore possible spending cuts, which recently were brought forward to the school board. Recommendations include slashing teacher aide and district staff positions, eliminating personalized learning programs and shutting down a kindergarten after-school program.

“We’re looking at every kind of possible reduction,” said Alexander, who joined the school district this past summer after Alicia Henderson stepped down to take another job in Washington state. “This is a great opportunity to retool what you’re doing and become more efficient.”

Alexander said he froze nonessential spending this summer when he realized the district faced a “budget crisis” after the previous administration spent down their reserve to about $660,000, barely meeting the state’s 3 percent rainy-day fund mandate. In 2012-13, the district had about $5.3 million in the reserve.

“There were a lot of great programs and support mechanisms for students. It was one of the reasons I was attracted to the school district, but I didn’t realize they couldn’t pay the bills for them all,” Alexander said.

He said the district will have to trim $1.3 million for next year, and an additional $300,000 to $400,000 the following year. If it has to lay off staff, he said it likely won’t be classroom teachers.

Herrington said districts must send notices by March 15 to teachers and staff who might be laid off.

The Sonoma Valley school district expects to slash the equivalent of 26.5 positions to help close a $2.4 million budget shortfall. Half the cuts will come from the elementary schools, which will lose about 13 teachers, said Bruce Abbott, associate superintendent for business services. More than $400,000 will come from non-staff related cuts.

Abbott said the district last month offered teachers a $20,000 retirement incentive to offset the need for layoffs. Thirteen teachers signed up.

Abbott said “86 percent of our expenses are people. You can’t squeeze toilet paper and copy paper that much.”

Class sizes also are expected to increase as a result. They currently average in the low 20s but likely will go up to about 24 students in K-3 classes, 28 in fourth and fifth grades and about 27 at the high school, Abbott said. Some elementary schools also might see grade combination classes, while the high school might scale back class offerings.

“Principals are going back now and looking at their master schedules,” he said.

In West Sonoma County, school foundations made an appeal to the community for money to spare some classes. The district plans to eliminate more than 40 class sections at Analy and El Molino high schools. With declining enrollment and state funding, Superintendent Steven Kellner said the 2,000-student district no longer can continue to dip into its reserves to cover the class costs as it’s done for the past 12 years.

“There are no reserves available,” said Kellner, who’s leaving the district at the end of the school year.

The district lost about 500 students over the past decade. Declining enrollment combined with rising employee pension and health care costs and the state’s new Local Control Funding Formula, which dedicates extra resources to schools with higher rates of English language learners and students from low-income families, created the “perfect storm” for his district, Kellner said.

“We don’t fall into those categories,” he said.

Meanwhile, housing costs continue to rise in the area. David Stecher, the school board’s president, said young families with kids cannot afford to live in Sebastopol.

“As our students graduate and leave, no students are there to replace them,” he said. “Until there’s a way for more young families to move into west Sonoma County, we’re going to face enrollment problems.”

In addition to dance, El Molino is at risk of losing its French and woodshop programs, Principal Matt Dunkle said. While not all classes will be cut in those subjects, those teachers would likely only be able to work part time, forcing them to look for other employment, he said.

The high school needs to raise about $20,000 for each class section. So far, the El Molino foundation has raised about $10,000, Dunkle said.

“We don’t want to see our kids deal with the consequences,” he said. “We want to make sure that the students are having the best available.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458.

Show Comment