Dunbar Elementary School closure considered again

Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Board of Trustees will be asked next week to consider closing Dunbar Elementary School at the start of the 2023-24 school year and initiate the closing of one additional elementary school and one middle school during the next three years.|

Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s Board of Trustees will be asked next week to consider closing Dunbar Elementary School at the start of the 2023-24 school year and initiate the closing of one additional elementary school and one middle school during the next three years.

“The superintendent and (district) staff recommend that enrollment at Dunbar be suspended beginning in the 2023-24 school year,” wrote Dr. Elizabeth Kaufman, acting superintendent of the district, in a letter to the Board of Trustees contained in the agenda for the April 20 board meeting.

She explained that district staff members would enroll Dunbar students in other elementary schools in the district and that transportation would be provided for students.

Dunbar enrollment has fallen from 170 students in 2016-17 to 113 students in 2022-23, a 34% decline. This has caused the school to combine grade levels in classes and resulted in prohibitively expensive per-student costs of providing ancillary services such as intervention teachers.

“Operating schools well below capacity is not an efficient use of district resources, especially when capacity exists at other elementary schools,” Kaufman wrote. “Maintaining a small school comes at a cost to students in terms of high-quality programming and a high-quality workforce.”

Eric Wittmershaus, director of communications for SCOE said the Sonoma Valley Unified School District is the only district in the county currently having discussions about closing one or more campuses, although by 2031 the county as a whole is projected to have the fourth-steepest enrollment decline in the state.

“We anticipate other districts will be wrestling with this issue,” he said. “Schools throughout Sonoma County are struggling with declining enrollment due to demographic factors such as lower birthrates as well as other factors, such as a lack of affordable housing that has prompted some families to move out of the area, and recent natural disasters.”

The cost of operating Dunbar in 2023-24 is estimated to be $1.25 million, assuming that three combination classes would be offered, Kaufman said, adding that closing the school could save between $854,000 to $1.1 million.

Dunbar is expected to have 93 students in 2023-24, including 21 special education students. Under the proposed plan, the special education students would be relocated to Prestwood Elementary School. The remaining students who live in the Springs neighborhood could be absorbed by Flowery and El Verano elementary schools as well as Woodland Star and Sonoma charter schools.

“However, with district-initiated transfers, parents of displaced students will be given the opportunity to enroll their children in any district elementary school,” Kaufman wrote. “There is interest from some Dunbar families to enroll in a charter school located on the Dunbar campus if the site is used for a charter.”

The closing of Dunbar would be a significant event in the Sonoma Valley community. Established in 1857, it is one of the oldest elementary schools in California and is in a picturesque setting that is sprinkled with oak trees and surrounded by vineyards.

“As a community, it is important to recognize the historical significance of the Dunbar name,” Kaufman wrote. “Options include using this name at other school sites, as Dunbar as we know it has previously been on other sites, or having the campus retain the Dunbar name so that any other program or school would include the Dunbar campus name.”

Plan to address declining enrollment

Immediately after the board discusses the Dunbar proposal at the meeting on April 20, it is scheduled to consider approval of a plan in which the district would consolidate to three elementary schools, one middle school and one high school during the next three years.

The board and the consulting firm it hired, Perkins-Eastman, targeted April 20 as the date to present a scenario for district reconfiguration.

Drawing on recommendations from district staff members, Perkins-Eastman is scheduled to present the proposed plan to consolidate and reconfigure the district. The proposal suggests that consolidation from two to one middle school begin in 2024-25 and be done in phases, beginning with sixth graders, through 2026-2027.

By the start in the 2025-26 school year, the district would be reduced to three elementary schools.

The proposal is meant to address the declining student enrollment — largely due to the declining birthrate — at all district schools except for Flowery Elementary School, a dual immersion school.

Perkins-Eastman’s research has found that low enrollment and small schools cause less opportunities for teacher collaboration, more combination classes, constraints on master scheduling with competing courses, difficulty in offering multitiered systems of support, high administrative and maintenance costs on a per pupil basis, and enhanced difficulty in hiring people for hard-to-fill positions.

The consulting firm found that with a smaller footprint, school districts are able to improve educational quality by offering multiple sections for each grade, not having split-grade classes and providing better access to training and resources.

A smaller footprint also can result in reduced energy, administrative, maintenance and operations costs, as well as potential facility leasing revenue. The firm found that students and families have better access to resources and can benefit from the district being able to focus on higher-quality facilities.

Perkins-Eastman found that the district would save more than $3.6 million in operational costs by eliminating one middle school and two elementary schools. Eliminating one middle school and one elementary school would save approximately $2.7 million and closing just one elementary school would save some $1.2 million.

Proposed consolidation committee

Kaufman and the district staff recommends establishing a school consolidation and configuration committee to recommend campuses for consolidation. The committee would consist of seven to 12 members from the district, including a parent or guardian of a child enrolled in a school, a teacher, a classified employee, an administrator, someone from the business community, a landowner and a member at large.

One objective would be to find members who reflect the ethnicity, age range and socioeconomic composition of the district.

The committee would be asked to gather facts, including the completion of an equity analysis; prepare reports for the board; and make recommendations regarding which schools to consolidate, reconfigure or close.

Perkins-Eastman previously presented reconfiguration models to the Sonoma Valley Board of Trustees in which school campuses would be converted to housing for district employees and community members.

The committee would make its initial recommendation for middle schools configuration at the November 2023 board meeting and a proposal would be presented for approval at the meeting in December 2023. The committee’s initial recommendation for the elementary schools consolidation would be presented at the April 2024 board meeting and a plan would be presented for approval at the May 2024 meeting.

The decision will be at the direction of the Sonoma school board.

“The Sonoma County Office of Education is not involved in the process,” Wittmershaus said. “Our involvement in district matters is limited to ensuring that the district can meet its financial obligations.”

He said the only scenario in which SCOE could become involved in reconfiguring campuses would be if a district’s finances entered a negative status and the district failed to take corrective actions. In such a case, the state could mandate a takeover of the district to balance its finances.

Other districts

Other county school districts have consolidated or reconfigured their facilities in recent years. In 2021, the West County Union High School District Board of Trustees voted to close El Molino High School in Forestville and consolidate its students with those at Analy High School in Sebastopol, and Rincon Valley Union School District configured several campuses to cut operating expenses.

Wittmershaus said that closing a school is always a challenge.

“The decision to close a school is never easy or without pain,” he said. “School campuses are woven into the fabric of their neighborhoods and provide a strong sense of community.”

He said the best way to decide on a course of action is to be deliberate, fair and transparent, and to be sure everyone’s voice is heard before the board takes its final vote.

“Even still, these decisions can prove controversial, as we have seen in some of our communities that are wrestling with declining enrollment,” Wittmershaus said.

Proposed Sonoma Valley Unified School District reconfiguration timeline

The agenda for the Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s April 20 board meeting includes two proposals to reconfigure and consolidate schools. Both proposals would need to be approved by the Board of Trustees. Here is the proposed timeline.

• 2023: School consolidation and reconfiguration committee created

• August 2023: Dunbar Elementary School closes and its students are enrolled at other campuses

• November 2023: Committee makes initial presentation for consolidating middle schools

• December 2023: Plan to consolidate middle schools presented for board approval

• April 2024: Committee makes initial presentation for consolidating elementary schools

• May 2024: Plan to consolidate elementary school presented for board approval

• 2024-25 school year: Middle school consolidation begins

• 2025-26 school year: Elementary school consolidation begins

• 2026-27 school year: Middle school consolidation ends

Changes in enrollment

From 2015-16 to 2022-23, enrollment fell from 400 to 334 (16%) at Adele Harrison Middle School; 558 to 387 (31%) at Altimira Middle School; 416 to 245 (41%) at El Verano Elementary School; 405 to 268 (34%) at Prestwood Elementary School; and 364 to 231 (37%) at Sassarini Elementary School. During this time frame, enrollment rose from 330 to 365 (9%) at Flowery.

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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