Santa Rosa schools grapple with reopening classrooms amid budget cuts, coronavirus rules
In an emotional, nearly six-hour meeting, the Santa Rosa School Board grappled with how to reopen school campuses for 16,000 students and 1,600 staffers under crushing financial pressure and unfinished health and safety guidelines in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
Board members and district officials called for sweeping changes in the way education is funded and delivered to Sonoma County’s 70,000 school children. Calling the situation a crisis that is highlighting existing racial and economic disparities within the education system, board president Laurie Fong called for bold change.
“This is really a pivot point,” she said. “I, for one, will be extremely disappointed if we go back to the way things were.”
The board voted late Wednesday to send a letter and resolution to Gov. Gavin Newsom outlining the pressure school districts are under to deliver education in unprecedented circumstances and with debilitating cuts.
Although it made no decision on what school would look like when classes start Aug. 13, board members and staff expressed doubt that students would walk through the door of campuses like normal.
“Every single teacher I know wants to be eyeball to eyeball,” said Santa Rosa Teachers Association president Will Lyon.
“The union position at this time, and I don’t see it changing, is to prioritize the health and safety of our students and staff. ... If we can’t reopen school safely we will do way more harm than good.”
But board members wrestled with how to serve students and families in which parents are at work and unable to either supervise or help guide studies.
The meeting, conducted via video feed, was both sweeping and emotional as the discussion pushed toward midnight. Trustees broached a series of topics that have long been considered flash points for many: Consolidation of the county’s 40 school districts, redrawing district lines to create more racially balanced schools, examining the role of police officers on campus, and crafting back-to-school plans that will likely look different depending on the school and the needs of its students.
Superintendent Diann Kitamura acknowledged the difficulty of the task.
“If we do the same old, same old we are perpetuating the institutionalized disparities all over again,” she said. “We are not taking the opportunity to make the shift we need to do. Are you ready to stand up and do this?”
Trustees expressed frustration that they are essentially tasked with creating a path back to the classroom amid the coronavirus pandemic without guidelines that lay out what health and safety mitigation measures will be required.
Schools cannot follow models that have been so far laid out for businesses, trustee Jenni Klose said. If Santa Rosa City Schools campuses are asked to follow rules similar to those required of hair salons: “Schools would never, ever, ever open. It would be impossible for us to comply with those,” she said.
There was also extended conversation about how districts can be expected to deliver a radically different educational experience at the same time they are wrestling with the very real prospect of deep budget cuts.
Newsom’s revised budget plan included cutting K-12 and community college funding by $13.5 billion to help cover a statewide budget deficit of nearly $54 billion. But on Wednesday legislative leaders unveiled a radically different proposal, one that would reject cuts while delaying state payments to districts. Districts would spend money and have the state pay them back in a future budget year.
But for many districts, it’s not a panacea, according to Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Steve Herrington.
“For cash flow purposes, it is going to be very tight on some of our districts,” he said.
The strategy is not unheard of but the figures in this case are based on guesswork. Because of the coronavirus, Californians have been given until July 15 - not April 15 - to file their taxes. Until that date, lawmakers will not know the reality of the state’s fiscal outlook. And the Democrats’ proposal is not a lock. It sets up a showdown of sorts with Newsom under a tight deadline. If not deal is struck by June 15, lawmakers are not paid.
“There will still need to be reductions. What we are hoping is that Oct. 1 will look better than what they expect in July,” state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose wife is an elementary school principal in Healdsburg, said of a plan lawmakers hope will buy districts some time. “Will it be easy? No. Nothing is going to be easy the rest of this year.”
And every element of California’s budget for recovery relies on federal stimulus money.