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