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Merging Santa Rosa school districts could save $29 million per year, report says, but not everyone is in favor

Conducted by an independent auditing firm, the study comes as Santa Rosa City Schools faces continued budget cuts as a result of steadily declining enrollment.|

Sonoma County is exceptional for more than just its world-class wines, jaw-dropping natural beauty and some of the country’s best restaurants.

The county has 40 school districts. But that unusually high number — only four of California’s 58 counties have more — is likely to shrink.

A recently released report, requested by Santa Rosa City Schools, concluded it could save tens of millions of dollars by merging with all or some of its nine feeder elementary schools.

Such is the glacial pace of consolidating districts, however, that those savings won’t be realized for at least five years, and probably longer, Sonoma County Office of Education officials said.

Conducted by an independent auditing firm, the study comes as Santa Rosa City Schools — a combination of the city’s elementary and high school districts — faces continued budget cuts as a result of steadily declining enrollment. Santa Rosa City Schools has already cut $20 million from its operating budget over the previous five years.

In requesting the study, the district’s board sought to answer a “central question,” said Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington: “Would unification enhance the instructional opportunity for all students, at a similar or reduced cost” to the affected districts and taxpayers?

That the answer came back a resounding “yes” was not especially surprising. Even as it serves all the high school students in the greater Santa Rosa area, the district also has nine feeder elementary school districts, eight with their own boards and superintendents. That’s 10 school districts in one city.

“It is not hard to create a new and more cost-efficient district when there are so many areas of duplicative administration,” the report states.

“For example, administrative costs run nearly $9 million more area-wide compared to similar single districts. Instead of nine boards, superintendents, and service departments, one position or department is needed in a single district.”

A clear favorite

Wildfires, a pandemic, the high cost of living and the county’s aging population have combined to drive down student enrollment by 8% between 2017-2018 and 2021-2022, from 70,449 students to 64,802. As that trend accelerates, many districts are scrambling to cope with lost revenue.

The study, conducted by Christy White & Associates, was requested in January 2021, four months after the West Sonoma County Union High School District retained the same firm to conduct a similar examination of its 10-district feeder system. Both were paid for by the county’s Office of Education, which provides oversight of the budgets of its 40 school districts.

Santa Rosa Study October 2022.pdf

The 82-page study for Santa Rosa City Schools offered three primary suggestions, and wasn’t bashful about picking a favorite: “Financially, Scenario 2 is the best and first choice.”

That Solomon-like option would create a “net positive financial gain” of $29 million per year, the report concluded, by splitting area schools into two school districts: a Santa Rosa Unified, and Rincon Valley Area Elementary and High School District that would share the same administration (just as Santa Rosa’s high school district and elementary school district now share the same board and administration).

That Santa Rosa City Unified district would be made up of the Bellevue, Roseland, Bennett Valley, Wright and Santa Rosa elementary districts, along with Montgomery, Santa Rosa and Elsie Allen high schools, plus their middle schools.

To the north would be the Rincon Valley High School District — Piner and Maria Carillo high schools — along with a Rincon Valley Union Elementary School District comprised of the Rincon Valley, Piner-Olivet and Kenwood districts.

Scenario 3 would save $14.7 million per year by merging the area’s elementary school districts into two large unified districts, which would share an administration. While the high school district would stay the same, the Santa Rosa City Elementary, Roseland, Wright, Bellevue, and Bennett Valley districts would unite and form one district. The Rincon Valley, Piner-Olivet, Kenwood and Mark West districts would form another.

What appears on paper to be the simplest solution — Scenario 1 — is also the riskiest, according to the report. That option would unify all 10 school districts around the Santa Rosa City High School District’s current boundaries. While full unification could eventually save up to $44.8 million per year, it would suffer the immediate loss of $21.3 million per year in basic aid and supplemental funding from the state, necessitating draconian cuts that would take years to be offset by those savings.

At an Oct. 3 meeting to discuss the study’s findings, Herrington emphasized that in any unionization or unification scenario, a new school board would be elected to oversee the resulting new district — which would be overseen by a new administration, hired by that board.

As detailed in the study, numerous public hearings would need to take place in the areas affected. Any proposed consolidation would end up on a ballot for voters to decide.

Herrington asked the board to choose a scenario “by November” — a deadline that struck some trustees as unreasonably tight. When it does select an option, the board will inform the county’s office of education which scenario it prefers. That will trigger a follow-up study by Christy White & Associates — this one weighing numerous other legal criteria, such as whether the reorganization will preserve “community identity” and the affected district’s “ability to educate students in an integrated environment” that won’t promote “discrimination or segregation.”

Long slog, stiff opposition

Regardless of the scenario chosen, consolidation will take a minimum of five years, Herrington believes. The last “true unification” of school districts in California, he said, took place in Sacramento County more than 15 years ago. That merger was far less complicated — and contentious — than the task now facing the school board, but it still took a decade.

While unification is years away, if it happens at all, the process has already triggered outright opposition from some affected administrators.

After the study was released, Rachel Valenzuela, Superintendent of the Mark West Union School District, sent an email intended to reassure the “MWUSD community.”

While the Santa Rosa City Schools might be hemorrhaging students and money, she wrote, “I would like to report to you that our district is fiscally solvent, we have not experienced the levels of declining enrollment referenced in the SCOE announcement, and we are committed to continue serving our Mark West community with a top-notch education as an independent district.”

Parents of students in the Piner-Olivet Unified School District were informed in an email from Superintendent Steve Charbonneau that “POUSD has no interest in unifying or consolidating with SRCS or any of its neighboring school districts.”

The stances of the superintendents are understandable, considering unification would probably make their jobs disappear.

Neither Valenzuela nor Charbonneau replied to phone calls or emails requesting comment.

Brian Bushon, the parent of a student at Morrice Schaefer Charter School — in Charbonneau’s Piner-Olivet district — disagrees with the superintendent. Schaefer, he said, can no longer afford a librarian, due to budget cuts, which means the library is closed.

“I don’t like that message, that the school doesn’t think books are important enough to fund that position,” Bushon said.

The school no longer offers physical education classes. And some teachers have been forced to “double up” — teaching students from different grades at the same time in the same classroom.

“That’s taking 50% of the learning from each grade. It doesn’t seem smart, or fair to the student or the teacher,” he said. “I think consolidation is a good idea. It could only help us.”

Huge advantage’ for students

Unifications tend to benefit teacher salaries, Herrington has pointed out. Kathryn Howell, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, seemed underwhelmed by that news.

“Teacher salaries have got to go up,” she said. “They’re below state average in almost every district in the county.”

While Howell described as “daunting” the marathon negotiations consolidation would require — different unions hashing out “contracts and salaries and health care and all those things” — she also identified a strong upside of unification: continuity of education.

Howell taught for years at Rincon Valley Middle School, which had no elementary schools feeding into it from Santa Rosa City Schools.

“So you get seventh graders coming in from Kenwood or Mark West or Rincon Valley Unified, and they’re coming in with different elementary school experiences, different learning, different curriculum,” she said. “So, as a seventh grade teacher, you’ve gotta say, ‘Okay, well, let’s figure this out.’”

More recently, Howell taught at Lawrence Cook Middle School, now Cesar Chavez Language Academy in Santa Rosa.

“Only one Santa Rosa city elementary school feeds into that school,” she said. “But we’re getting kids from the Wright school district in Bellevue and others. And there’s no determining, ‘Okay, what did you learn in sixth grade?’ It’s all over the map.”

The unified curriculum consolidation would bring, Howell said, “would be a huge advantage for the students.”

Concerns about segregation

For now, there’s plenty of opposition and resentment. Michael Kellison, superintendent of the Bellevue Union School District, which straddles Highway 101 in south Santa Rosa, spoke for many of his fellow administrators when he expressed disappointment that no one from his district was contacted about the study before it was released.

The Bellevue board and administration felt “blindsided” by the study, in which it is prominently featured as “one of those feeder districts” that would be “dissolved, or unionized, or unified into other parent districts,” Kellison said.

“We should have been part of that conversation,” he added. “We’re hopeful we will be as this process continues.”

In an email to “members of the BUSD community,” Kellison also expressed “no interest in unifying or consolidating with SRCS or any of its neighboring districts,” and pointed out that Bellevue is in a strong financial position with increasing enrollment. Santa Rosa City Schools, he wrote, was seeking to “salvage its current financial woes by attempting to take over neighboring school districts that are operating effectively and efficiently.”

Bellevue’s robust finances are due, in part, to its high percentage of students who are poor, have limited English or both. Since 2013, when California changed its school funding formula to redress historic inequities, districts get additional funds to serve these pupils.

Indeed, Scenario 2, the study’s “best and first choice,” reaps $9.4 million in savings by creating a high school district with a high concentration of poor students and English learners. That stopped some Santa Rosa City Schools board members in their tracks.

“Am I to understand,” asked trustee Alegria De La Cruz, “that the reason Scenario 2 generates the most revenue is this concentration of low-income students of color who are English language learners?”

To De La Cruz, who is also director of the county’s office of equity, that option seemed to be a “doubling down” on Santa Rosa’s existing segregation.

“It is a better business case to segregate our schools by class and by race — is that what the study is saying?”

“No,” replied Christy White, the CPA, who portrayed the district’s current configuration as a missed opportunity. “This funding follows these students, and right now you’re forgoing” that money.

Board member Ever Flores acknowledged Scenario 2 made fiscal sense, but expressed deep discomfort with the idea of rewarding the concentration of minorities.

“That, to me, is just going backward,” he said after the meeting.

Herrington urged the board to look at Scenario 2 from a different angle, pointing out it “provides the greatest number of resources to the students who have the greatest need.”

A veteran of over half a century working in California public schools, Herrington will retire later this year, at the end of his term. When someone observed that he might be well into retirement before this unification came to pass, he replied, laughing, “I may not even be alive.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

UPDATED: Michael Kellison’s name was misspelled in a previous version of this story.

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