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School study in west county shows multiple paths to combine districts, with varying benefits

Additional information on west county school district consolidation report

Methodology

Christy White, the contracted consultant, performed her analysis of revenues and costs to the districts by pulling from sources such as Ed Data, census data and the Sonoma County Assessor’s Office, among others.

She estimated potential cost savings in each scenario by comparing the hypothetical districts with existing districts of similar size and demographics, using financial data from those districts.

History of consolidation discussions in Sonoma County

The last time a school district unified in Sonoma County was in 1993, when Windsor became a unified K-12 district.

In 2002, the Sonoma County Grand Civil Jury issued a report that Sonoma County, with 40 school districts, was experiencing financial inefficiencies that were hurting budgets and taking money from classrooms. The report spurred conversations, but no districts unified or unionized at that time.

In 2006, the West Sonoma County Union High School District completed a similar study to the one produced this year, which showed the 11 districts would save at least $200,000 a year by unifying. None of the districts were interested in pursuing the path any further, though, and the report’s findings were nullified when California’s funding structure changed in 2013.

A new study on school district unification scenarios in west Sonoma County showed a mixed fiscal outlook for the 11 elementary and high school districts involved, projecting both cost savings and revenue losses that would require careful planning from future district leaders if boundaries are reconfigured.

The study, commissioned in September 2020 by the board of the West Sonoma County Union High School District, examined the financial feasibility of the high school district merging with some or all of the 10 elementary districts that feed into it.

Declining enrollment across all of those school districts spurred the leaders of the high school district to explore unification options in 2020. Since requesting the study, the West Sonoma County Union High School District closed El Molino High School in Forestville, consolidating the student population with Sebastopol’s Analy High School in an attempt to cut more than $1 million in costs.

But further reductions in enrollment still threaten to have dire effects on budgets ‒ in west county and across Sonoma County, where some of its 40 school districts have flirted with consolidation talks for years but declined to advance concrete plans.

The big stick in those discussions are fiscal penalties, in dwindling budgets, limited class offerings and potential campus closures.

But money is not the only driving factor. California requires schools to also consider the effect on students’ educational opportunities, and to demonstrate consolidation would benefit them.

In the case of west county, which now represents the front line in Sonoma County of consolidation efforts, school district leaders and other elected public officials will decide whether or not to pursue additional study on the educational impacts of mergers.

“I’m really hoping to hear feedback from our community about which direction they’d like to see us go,” said Patrick Nagle, president of the West Sonoma County Union High School District board. “Because I’d like to honor their request.”

Sonoma County superintendent of schools Steve Herrington presented the report at West Sonoma County High School on the evening of June 28, along with Christy White, Inc. the certified public accountant firm that performed the unification study.

The Sonoma County Office of Education paid for the $75,000 study and selected Christy White, Inc. to conduct the financial analysis.

Herrington noted the relative rarity of the unification study during his presentation: to his knowledge, it is the first one ordered by a California school district since the state switched its funding model in 2013 to what’s known as the Local Control Funding Formula, which was supposed to be more equitable and allow school districts more autonomy in spending.

Santa Rosa City Schools also requested a unification study in January 2021 that Herrington said will be completed later this year. The study is examining the financial feasibility of unifying with any of the eight elementary districts that feed in to Santa Rosa’s middle and high schools.

The county’s last school unification came nearly 30 years ago, with the consolidation by Windsor’s school district.

But as Sonoma County’s 40 school districts brace for ongoing declines in their student populations — enrollment is projected to drop countywide by 17% in the next decade — the need for similar studies and real progress on consolidation is likely to increase in the coming years.

Herrington applauded the high school district board for pursuing more information through the study as they prepare to face continued challenges from declining enrollment.

“I want to give them credit,” Herrington said of west county school leaders. “They have to find ways to keep the district viable, and this was part of that due diligence, to stay financially viable and look at possibility of, what we could do better for our community?”

Three paths presented

The 56-page report by San Diego-based Christy White, Inc. explored three potential unification scenarios in the west county and detailed how each one would impact the financial outlook for the 11 affected districts. They encompass a geographic area spanning from Sebastopol to Fort Ross, from Cazadero to Occidental.

Access the full report here.

The scenario with the most dramatic change and greatest financial risk looked at West County Union High School District merging with all 10 feeder elementary districts.

The move could result in the loss of $14 million in revenue, based on White’s analysis. While she also projected savings of about $2 million from decreased administrative expenses, the new school board of the unified district would need to be prepared to cut additional spending dramatically within the first year. That could mean dozens of layoffs or closing campuses.

A unification study exploring consolidation of the West Sonoma County Union High School District with some or all of its 10 feeder districts examined three configuration scenarios. This map shows Scenario One. (Sonoma County Office of Education)
A unification study exploring consolidation of the West Sonoma County Union High School District with some or all of its 10 feeder districts examined three configuration scenarios. This map shows Scenario One. (Sonoma County Office of Education)

The lost revenue stems from an expected change in the way the unified district would be funded.

The scenario would force nine of the elementary districts to go from what’s called “basic aid” — a funding status based on higher property tax revenues and small student populations — to the Local Control Funding Formula, where schools receive a base amount of funding and supplemental funding based on the share of English learners, socioeconomically disadvantaged and foster children who are enrolled.

The West Sonoma County Union High School District and Twin Hills Elementary District are currently funded through the LCFF.

A second scenario would divide up the West Sonoma County Union High School District into two unified K-12 school districts. One district would unify Monte Rio, Guerneville, Fort Ross, Montgomery, Forestville and Oak Grove into the Russian River Unified District.

Gravenstein, Twin Hills, Sebastopol and Harmony would combine to form the West Sonoma County Unified District, under White’s scenario.

A unification study exploring consolidation of the West Sonoma County Union High School District with some or all of its 10 feeder districts examined three configuration scenarios. This map shows Scenario Two. (Sonoma County Office of Education)
A unification study exploring consolidation of the West Sonoma County Union High School District with some or all of its 10 feeder districts examined three configuration scenarios. This map shows Scenario Two. (Sonoma County Office of Education)

That plan may be likely to gain some traction with residents of the far west county, as it provides an option that could require reopening of the El Molino campus as the high school that would serve the Russian River District, according to White’s report.

Still, the scenario would entail an estimated loss of about $5.9 million in revenue combined across both districts, with the larger share forgone by the West Sonoma Unified District, according to White’s analysis. She estimated potential cost savings for the two districts, at $3 million to $5 million for the Russian River District and $4 million to $6 million for the West Sonoma Unified District.

The third scenario involves merging nine of the basic-aid elementary districts into one large elementary district. Upon reaching high school, students in that district would feed into the West Sonoma County Unified School District, a K-12 district created by combining Twin Hills district with West Sonoma County Union High School District.

A unification study exploring consolidation of the West Sonoma County Union High School District with some or all of its 10 feeder districts examined three configuration scenarios. This map shows Scenario Three. (Sonoma County Office of Education)
A unification study exploring consolidation of the West Sonoma County Union High School District with some or all of its 10 feeder districts examined three configuration scenarios. This map shows Scenario Three. (Sonoma County Office of Education)

That alignment would enable the merged elementary districts to keep their basic-aid status and the dollars that come with it. Twin Hills and the high school district, both state-funded school districts, would remain funded through the local control framework.

White estimated no revenue losses in either district under the third scenario, but cost savings for both. That includes $2 million for the unified district and $1.7 million in administrative costs for the merged elementary district. The latter district could save another $5.6 million, she said, “especially if some school site consolidations were feasible.”

More questions than answers

West Sonoma County Union High School District board members did not voice clear preferences for any scenario after the presentation last week.

“I personally don’t have an opinion as of yet,” Nagle said. “Unfortunately, I feel like I walked away with more questions than I had before.”

Jeanne Fernandes, board vice president, said she was worried about the possibility of schools closing and staff layoffs to save enough money to make any of the scenarios financially beneficial. Oakland’s public school district, among others in California, has been roiled by such moves over the past year.

“When we’re looking at Scenario Three, if all of the remaining elementary schools … were to consolidate, there was stated to be a significant potential savings of $7 million,” Fernandes said at the meeting. “But my biggest concern is, what does that really mean? How many sites would we lose? How many teachers would have to be laid off? I’m sure the answer is well, it would have to be determined by a new board … but it’s concerning to me.”

Board members Julie Aiello and Angie Lewis were mostly quiet after Herrington and White presented the report. Trustee Kellie Noe was not present.

Debbie Ramirez, a politically active parent in the West Sonoma County Union High School District who attended the board meeting, said she was generally encouraged by White’s findings. Ramirez was against the closing of El Molino High School while the unification study was being completed, and headed the campaign to pass a parcel tax that would have helped keep the school open in 2021. The tax measure failed to garner the required two-thirds majority.

“I like that there’s a preliminary feasibility study that say it’s worthwhile (to consider unifying),” Ramirez said. “That’s how I read it. That’s the green light that is then needed to move forward.”

The West Sonoma County Union High School District board will next consider whether it wants to ask the county Office of Education to research the educational impact of any one of the scenarios.

Nagle said he hopes to hear from as many constituents as possible before August, when the board is hoping to make its next decision about the process. He said he also hopes to communicate with members of the 10 elementary school districts.

Herrington said his office is willing to go over the feasibility report with those school boards if requested.

But Ramirez cast doubt on whether July, typically a month when families and school staff are on vacation and less plugged into school board actions, will provide enough time for the necessary conversations to happen. Some of the elementary district boards do not even plan to meet again before August.

The county Office of Education, she said, is “an entity that could bring people together” by holding more events to educate the public.

“I really think there does need to be a guided professional community conversation, because school districts are very complicated,” Ramirez said.

When do voters get their say?

Voters can also advance merger efforts and will have the final say on whether or not any plan is implemented.

In the short-term, voters could decide to organize a petition in support of one scenario for further study at the county level. The petition must be signed by a minimum of a quarter of registered voters in each one of the school districts involved.

Other local public bodies also can petition for the school districts to unify, including city councils, the county Board of Supervisors or the county’s Local Agency Formation Commission, which oversees the boundaries of tax-funded districts.

Finally, if a majority of members of the governing boards of all the affected districts sign a petition, it will also advance to the Sonoma County Committee on School District Organization.

That body is responsible for formulating a plan or recommendation to submit to the county superintendent of schools.

The county superintendent, upon receipt of that recommendation, is required to hold a public hearing on the proposal within 60 days, and to make a recommendation to the state board of education within 120 days.

After that, the county superintendent of schools, as the head of the Office of Education, can place the issue on the ballot, giving voters the opportunity to decide.

If one of the scenarios White explored in her report does advance through those steps, it’s possible that the final configuration of school districts may not look exactly as proposed. Some could opt out, or district-based voters could reject a plan on the ballot.

All in all, it could take close to a decade for any mergers to become realized.

Herrington noted the daunting nature of taking on either process. It requires collaboration and a long-term vision.

But a decision not to pursue further study of unification will have ripple effects of its own.

“The thing to keep in mind is, by 2025, some of (the elementary districts) might be so small, they’ll look at this as a lifesaver,” he said.

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

Additional information on west county school district consolidation report

Methodology

Christy White, the contracted consultant, performed her analysis of revenues and costs to the districts by pulling from sources such as Ed Data, census data and the Sonoma County Assessor’s Office, among others.

She estimated potential cost savings in each scenario by comparing the hypothetical districts with existing districts of similar size and demographics, using financial data from those districts.

History of consolidation discussions in Sonoma County

The last time a school district unified in Sonoma County was in 1993, when Windsor became a unified K-12 district.

In 2002, the Sonoma County Grand Civil Jury issued a report that Sonoma County, with 40 school districts, was experiencing financial inefficiencies that were hurting budgets and taking money from classrooms. The report spurred conversations, but no districts unified or unionized at that time.

In 2006, the West Sonoma County Union High School District completed a similar study to the one produced this year, which showed the 11 districts would save at least $200,000 a year by unifying. None of the districts were interested in pursuing the path any further, though, and the report’s findings were nullified when California’s funding structure changed in 2013.

Kaylee Tornay

Education, The Press Democrat

Learning is a transformative experience. Beyond that, it’s a right, under the law, for every child in this country. But we also look to local schools to do much more than teach children; they are tasked with feeding them, socializing them and offering skills in leadership and civics. My job is to help you make sense of K-12 education in Sonoma County and beyond.  

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