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