Public debate begins over possible merger of 3 west Sonoma County high schools at one campus
An effort to consolidate high schools in west Sonoma County is taking shape as residents weigh the ramifications of combining three high schools — El Molino, Analy and Laguna, serving 1,800 students — into a single campus.
The West Sonoma County Union High School District Board of Trustees on Wednesday reviewed several options and the associated costs for centralizing the schools at their two main sites in Sebastopol or Forestville. They also explored a number of ways to use their properties to generate additional revenue and possibly build workforce housing for teachers and staff.
The district and board are now turning to the community, hosting multiple town halls and board discussions over the coming months to solicit feedback on whether the district should combine campuses, and if so, where.
A move to consolidate would generate an estimated $1.2 million in annual savings, according to the district.
The upcoming community discussions come as the high school district reaches a major transition point, confronted by declining enrollment and structural deficits that have persisted for much of past decade. Last month, the board OK’d a new study to examine the merits of absorbing any or all of its 10 feeder districts.
Since 2018, the district has enacted $2.2 million in cuts, and is eyeing a $2.2 million deficit in the 2022-23 school year.
“The reality of the district is it needs to make some decisions in order for it to provide quality programming to our students,” said Superintendent Toni Beal. “The declining enrollment and budget issues are at a crossroads … unless we make some strong decisions about where we’re going as a district.”
In 2019-20, there were 1,141 students at Analy and 90 at Laguna, a continuation school; both share a campus outside downtown Sebastopol. El Molino in Forestville had 551 students last year, according to the state Department of Education.
The west county district has lost about 270 students since 2013, Beal said. Projections indicate enrollment could decline by 74 more students by 2022, which would translate to a more than $3 million reduction in annual state funding in less than a decade.
School Board President Jeanne Fernandes, an Analy High alum in her second stint as a trustee, said the consolidation discussion was “inevitable” given the enrollment trends and the district’s desire to preserve its robust electives and enrichment programs.
Fernandes said she did not “have feelings one way or the other” yet, but recognized this debate could ignite tensions between each school’s community.
“That is going to create an issue with alumni on either side, with former teachers, new students — somebody is going to have a broken heart, and it breaks my heart to break someone’s heart,” Fernandes said.
The board on Wednesday took a conceptual look at how it could consolidate the high schools, a special education consortium and district offices at either Analy or El Molino, exploring different cost and programming tiers. The cost ranged from $200,000 to nearly $200 million — varying from little renovation to significant modernization, razing and constructing several new buildings.
The board was also given an option to purchase a new site altogether, which would cost roughly $380 million. Although, Jennie Bruneman, the district’s director of facilities, stressed it was “more something we wanted to look at,” and not a leading suggestion.
The district has nearly $70 million from previous bond measures available, but had not ruled out the possibility of a new measure should the board choose a more expensive option.
The board also got the first glimpse at how roughly 4 acres at the district office and Laguna site could be transformed into workforce housing for teachers and staff, providing up to 25 single-family homes or 44 multi-family units on district land. But realizing that project would require zoning changes and complex legal and bureaucratic processes that could take years.
The discussion was initially slated to come forward in April before it was delayed by the pandemic. Beal said she hopes the board makes a decision by the end of the current school year so the next year can be dedicated to planning.
Consolidating campuses would not lead to “significant” cuts in teacher staff since the number of students would remain the same, she said. But classified staff and support staff could be affected since only one school would need such employees.
West Sonoma County Teachers Association President Lily Smedshammer questioned whether this was the right time to have the discussions given the demands on teachers and families, who may have little energy to debate consolidation as remote classes continue.
“It’s unfortunate that this conversation about combining schools is happening during a year when teachers and the community are buried in the challenges of distance learning,” Smedshammer said.
You can reach Staff Writer Yousef Baig at 707-521-5390 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @YousefBaig.