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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.

“I don’t want to pass the buck whatever, I just want to be real,” McGuire said. “If we don’t see stimulus, we will be seeing reductions.”

Herrington and others acknowledged that time is of the essence. Teachers need time to prepare for what school will look like, parents need time to prepare for how they will accommodate any adjustments in schedule and students may need to prepare for another upended academic year.

“There is a level of frustration brewing out there because it seems like we are not moving fast enough,” Herrington said.

But without safety guidelines, district officials are in a holding pattern.

Five superintendents, as well as Herrington, met with county health officer Dr. Sundari Mase Wednesday to help finalize a roadmap for safety procedures that the county’s 40 districts can follow heading into fall.

Kitamura called the meeting “a waste of time” and said Mase, who left the meeting early, was preoccupied with a breaking health order.

“I get that. I understand that,” Kitamura said of Mase. “She promised to get back to us next week.”

The new timeline has Mase reviewing SCOE’s working roadmap by Wednesday. That delay pushes back when local superintendents can see a finalized document until at least June 12.

Despite comments Wednesday night from parents both lamenting the inadequacy of distance learning and the difficulty of managing studies and work from home, board members expressed doubt that schools could or would open as usual for on-campus class by the first day of school on August 13.

But they also said a decision needs to be made.

“We can all do better if we have time - time to plan and coordinate and time to plan and do good outreach that is culturally responsive,” said trustee Stephanie Manieri, noting that of the 40-plus commenters Wednesday, just two were Spanish speakers in a district where 32% of elementary students and 11% of high schoolers are classified as English learners.

Trustees acknowledged that the experience of many students in distance learning in the spring was far from optimal. If the district decides to start the school year online, teachers, parents and students need time to prepare.

“We need to call it and we need to decide what we are focusing on and we need to really drive in that direction,” trustee Alegria De La Cruz said. “I don’t think we can go back to school in the fall.”

It is incumbent on the district to give teachers time and tools to provide the next best thing to being “eyeball to eyeball,” and “get as close to that as we possibly can,” she said.

“We need to perfect distance teaching, not just distance learning,” she said.

Agreed, said Montgomery High teacher Kristin Reed, who called the rollout of distance learning in the spring quarter “scattershot.”

“People did the best with that they could in those circumstances,” she said. “Teachers can 100 percent do better than we did in those situations if we can prepare for it. Teachers want to be back with students, but it has to be safe and appropriate for the whole community and not just for one small group that is a part of it.”

But there was a strong push from some commenters that kids return to school, saying many students throughout the district are simply sitting at home while their parents work. And all parents need a clear target delineated by the district for kids’ return.

“What is the trigger point for the district to say we are just going to go back to normal?” asked Matt Adams, a father of two students in the district.

Board members addressed concerns that it could be calamitous if schools open their doors and an outbreak occurs while students, teachers and staff are back on campuses.

“How does that sit on our souls?” De La Cruz said. “I don’t want to be responsible for that.”

If the district moves to distance learning, adjustments need to be made, said Piner High teacher Ernesto Aubin.

In the spring, grades were essentially locked in at what a student had earned through three quarters. Grades could be raised through distance learning in the fourth quarter, but they could not go down.

Students sniffed out that loophole immediately, Aubin said.

“The participation rate across the board dramatically decreased as soon as students found that out,” he said. “When word spread, they disappeared.”

For Steele Lane Elementary School teacher Micah Carlin-Goldberg, the concern remains that coronavirus safety guidelines and crushing financial pressure will fall on teachers and what they are trying to do in the classroom.

He worries “that we are going to be asked to do everything with nothing.”

You can reach Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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