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High school consolidation looms again in west Sonoma County after tax measures fail

West County Union High School District meeting

What: School board meeting

When: 4:30 p.m., Wednesday

Where: The Zoom link to the board meeting is available on the school district’s home page, www.wscuhsd.org.

The March 2 defeat of two tax measures that would have provided revenue to the struggling West Sonoma County Union High School District has prompted officials to immediately resume discussion about consolidating its two main high schools to cut costs.

Parents and students in the district plan to turn out in force Wednesday night at the district’s virtual meeting to voice opposition and offer alternatives ahead of any decision the school board may advance on the fate of Analy and El Molino high schools.

"Consolidation in 5 months would be a hurried mess with many collisions and resentments created by a hasty process,“ reads a letter to the school board that over 548 parents, teachers and students had signed by Tuesday evening in advance of the meeting. ”We ask for the chance at a reasonable transition through the complicated, massive process you are considering.“

Board members will discuss the possibility of moving ahead with consolidation in light of current information about the district’s grim budget outlook, including available federal and state budget projections. Jeff Ogston, chief business official, will provide an update on the district’s structural deficit, which previously has been projected to reach $2 million by the 2022-23 school year.

Toni Beal, superintendent, will also report on the recommendations of the superintendent’s budget committee, including possible cost-saving or revenue-building alternatives.

"I look forward to finally being able to have a full discussion,“ said Kellie Noe, president of the West Sonoma County Union High School District. ”These are hard decisions. None of us, believe me, are taking this lightly.“

The school board faces time constraints to make decisions about where to cut costs for the coming school year, including a March 15 deadline to notify teachers of possible layoffs. The passage of either Measure A or Measure B in the March election would have allowed officials to devote another year or more to a decision about either consolidating campuses or cutting programs.

“I know that the day we found out the taxes didn’t pass, there were a lot of tears cried around Forestville,” said Jeanne Broome, a senior who represents Forestville’s El Molino High School as a student member of the board. “But we got right back up.”

Broome campaigned in favor of Measure A, a $48 parcel tax, on the March 2 ballot. It received 58% of the vote, according to the county’s most recent update. Measure B, a regional hike on the lodging tax put forth by the county Board of Supervisors, also would have contributed revenue to the school district. It garnered 62% of the vote, short of the supermajority both proposals needed to pass.

Community members moved quickly last week in the wake of the defeat to begin offering ideas that could prevent consolidation in the 2021-22 school year.

Many of the parents, students and teachers voicing opposition to immediate consolidation are from the broader community of El Molino High, the likeliest to be repurposed in a merger. They raise issues of equity over students’ increased commutes to and from the farthest reaches of the district, which spans from Sebastopol to much of the Sonoma Coast.

The capacity of Sebastopol’s Analy High to host about 1,700 students total after El Molino students arrive — especially amid COVID-19 safety protocols — is another common concern.

"If consolidation is your preferred route, we request that you please keep the El Molino students on their campus while you work on thoughtful integration of the two campuses,“ the letter from community members reads.

Read the entire letter here

A likely consolidation scenario would move El Molino students onto the Analy campus and shift Laguna High School, the alternative high school located across the street from Analy, to the Forestville campus along with district administrative offices.

The school board in December endorsed that outline in the district’s required fiscal recovery plan if both of the tax measures failed in March. The plan appealed to officials because it would avoid the stigma of an empty campus in either community.

The bulk of $1.2 million that the district projects it will save annually from consolidating comes from staff reductions, most of them classified staff and stipend-based positions such as sports coaches.

The board will have to decide whether to move forward with the plan or switch to an alternative sooner rather than later, Noe said.

“We need to have this discussion and give direction either way so our school community can see where the next steps are going to go,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Kaylee Tornay at 707-521-5250 or kaylee.tornay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ka_tornay.

West County Union High School District meeting

What: School board meeting

When: 4:30 p.m., Wednesday

Where: The Zoom link to the board meeting is available on the school district’s home page, www.wscuhsd.org.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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