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West Sonoma County families protest high school consolidation

Sonoma County Superior Court Judge James Bertoli stood at the front of the pavilion in Sebastopol’s town square late Saturday morning, wearing a blue Analy High School baseball cap and clutching a microphone.

“Let no one be mistaken,“ said Bertoli, surrounded by a hundred or more supporters wearing blue, burgundy and red to represent all three of the west county’s high schools. “We who are affiliated with Analy support our friends in their quest to save their school and stand ready to help them develop a solution. ... If only the board would do its duty and work with their constituents.”

The rally where Bertoli spoke was the latest in a string of protests and demonstrations directed toward the leadership of the West Sonoma County Union High School District. Community members representing El Molino, Analy and Laguna high schools spoke, decrying the changes affecting all of their campuses this coming year as the district seeks to address a yawning budget deficit.

By the time the school year begins in a month, El Molino’s Forestville campus will become the new home for Laguna students. El Molino students, meanwhile, will join their peers at Analy High School in Sebastopol under the new name West County High School. Superintendent Toni Beal said the moniker as a bridge name while the district undertakes a comprehensive rebranding process next school year.

Opponents of those plans Saturday raised a range of issues, including the changes they see unfolding at the Analy campus, the impacts on students having to move to a new campus or between both campuses under the new setup and the effects on the surrounding communities.

“We all deserve so much better than this,” said Dominic Piazza, a 2018 graduate from El Molino High School. “I’m so happy that we’ve all been able to unite behind this cause.”

Last school year, while the pandemic relegated both instruction and school board meetings to virtual platforms, many of the same families present at the rally this weekend spoke up against the plan to consolidate the district’s two largest high schools. Officials last October said the district, facing a $1.2 million structural deficit, needed to explore the possibility of consolidation by the following school year.

Various discussions and efforts to find alternatives unfolded over the next several months, including a quest for bridge funding through two tax measures. Both failed to pass in March. Shortly after, the school board moved forward with consolidation.

That decision was followed almost immediately by a lawsuit brought by a community group in the west county, as well as a recall effort against the board members who voted in favor of consolidation. Now, even the staunchest opponents accept that the approaching school year will see the district shrink from three high schools to two.

But the fight, they say, is still far from over.

“No, we won’t stop,” said Gillian Hayes, a Forestville resident and mom to two El Molino graduates. “And no, we will not end this or wear out or peter out until the district makes right on their wrong.”

Hayes is a member of the group that brought the lawsuit against the school district in April. The hearing in that case is set for Sept. 22, and the school district’s and families’ lawyers are preparing to make their arguments in the question at the heart of the suit: whether district leaders violated the state’s bedrock environmental law as they advanced the consolidation process over several months.

The Community Alliance for Responsible Education had earlier hoped to file an injunction asking for the judge put a stay on the consolidation while the lawsuit unfolds. But Jessalee Mills, another group member, said they ultimately decided against doing so. The timing would wind up being too close to the start of the school year, and they feared causing too much disruption to the students.

“We didn’t want to file an injunction if it wasn’t going to be successful,” she said.

Hayes described the legal challenge as a “slam dunk,” adding that the coming year of a combined school was “just a transition year.”

The school’s lawyer did not respond to a voicemail Friday.

Analy supporters at the rally spoke out against the changes being made to the Sebastopol campus, including the removal of signs and other branding.

Beal said in an interview that none of the changes being made to the campus are permanent. Any signs that have been taken down were put into storage, she said, and a removable metal covering was placed over an archway reading “Home of the Tigers,” rather than painting over it.

“The direction from the board was to use West County as the interim name and to have students feel welcome as they enter campus,” she said. “

More West County decorations are on the way, she said, in the form of removable decals to cover up other Tigers imagery.

Beal said she plans to send out more information within the next few days answering frequently asked questions and responding to what she said was misinformation about what the consolidation involves and does not.

Judy Simpson spoke at the rally on behalf of Laguna students, who are moving to the Forestville campus. She worries about their ability to get to the new campus, saying some walked to the Sebastopol campus from the Hessel area in years past.

In a recurring refrain, Saturday’s speakers called for continued unity as the school year approaches and the opposition efforts persist. More fundraisers and increased signature collections in the recall efforts are in the works, organizers said.

”Please, keep the letters going, talk to the board members,“said Linda Helton, a ‘74 graduate of Analy High. ”Keep fighting and keep working together.“

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

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