Santa Rosa school board to study ‘full unification’ of its 10 districts

Sweeping consolidation entails financial risk, and would first appear on a ballot measure for voters to decide.|

The Santa Rosa City School Board met in a special meeting Jan. 18 to address a familiar, thorny issue: the proposed unification of its many school districts.

After weighing the trio of consolidation choices offered by an independent auditing firm, board members took a surprising step ― voting unanimously to further study the riskiest, most challenging option.

That option calls for “full unification” of the Santa Rosa City Elementary and High School Districts with all eight of its elementary feeder districts. It comes with considerable and immediate fiscal pain, according to a study by the firm Christy White & Associates.

But full unification would also do the most, argued Board Trustee Omar Medina, to break down the segregation existing in the city and its public schools.

“For as long as I’ve lived here, I’ve felt a lot of segregation in our community, and a lot of it from our school district,” said Medina, a graduate of Elsie Allen High School and the son of Mexican immigrants.

“In the long term, this will benefit our community on many levels.”

Two years ago, in the face of draconian budget cuts resulting from steadily declining enrollment, the board requested a study to answer the question: Would unification of the Santa Rosa City High School District with all or some of its feeder districts “enhance the instructional opportunity for all students” at a similar or reduced cost?

The answer was yes. The board’s job at this special meeting was to choose one of the three consolidation scenarios offered by the 82-page study, which was completed in October. That done, the auditing firm will now perform an in-depth study on the full unification scenario. That report will take months to complete.

Santa Rosa Study October 2022.pdf

Christy White, who attended the meeting to answer the board’s questions, noted that her firm’s study focused on the “financial feasibility” of consolidation.

According to the original report, the follow-up study will weigh numerous other legal criteria, such as whether the reorganization will preserve “community identity,” and the affected district’s “ability to educate students in an integrated environment” that won’t promote “discrimination or segregation.”

The tab for the studies is picked up by the county’s Office of Education, which provides oversight of the budgets of its 40 school districts.

Authors of the Christy White study weren’t coy about anointing a favorite option: “Financially, Scenario 2 is the best and first choice.”

That option entailed splitting area schools into two districts: Santa Rosa Unified, and Rincon Valley Area Elementary and High School District (the latter would share a board and administration.) Doing so would create a “net positive financial gain” of $29 million per year, the report concluded.

The second best option, according to the report’s authors, was Scenario 3. It would save $14.7 million per year by merging the area’s elementary school districts into two large unified districts, which would share an administration.

And then there was Scenario 1: full unification of the entire district. On paper, it appeared to be the simplest, most straightforward solution.

Ah, but appearances deceived, warned the report. Such a sweeping move, it explained, would trigger an immediate loss of $21.3 million ― the result of lost “concentration grant funds and basic aid funding.”

True, it went on, Scenario 1 could eventually recoup an annual savings of $44 million, in future years. But that savings would be difficult to achieve in the near term.

Scenario 1, concluded the report, “does not appear to provide many benefits.”

So, it was somewhat surprising to see the Board rally behind that fiscally precarious option at the Jan. 18 special meeting.

But the trustees had their reasons for rejecting Scenario 2, which reaped $9.4 million in savings by creating a high school district with a high concentration of poor students and English learners.

That landed poorly with some board members, including trustees Medina and Alegría De La Cruz, who is also director of Sonoma County’s Office of Equity.

While she missed last week’s special meeting, De La Cruz had earlier characterized Scenario 2 as a “doubling down” on Santa Rosa’s existing segregation.

While Scenario 2 made fiscal sense, Board Trustee Ever Flores acknowledged in October, he was uncomfortable with the idea of rewarding the concentration of minorities.

“That, to me, is just going backward.”

Medina emphasized during last week’s meeting that it’s still very early in the consolidation process, which will take at least five years, officials agree.

He also stated the Board will work with state legislators, who could help them avoid the financial challenges predicted for the early stages of the full unification scenario.

Indeed, they’ll have to. Funds from the state will almost certainly be required for that scenario to take place. As detailed in the study, any proposed consolidation will end up on a ballot for voters to decide. A plan featuring the possibility of a $21.3 million loss in its first year would be DOA at the polls.

Education lobbyist Kevin Gordon, also in attendance at the special meeting, said it would make sense for California lawmakers to take steps to help districts merge.

“We get lots of complaints, from legislators and others,” he said, “about how many small school districts we have all over the state” ― 40 in Sonoma County alone ― “but if they really believe in that they ought to create some incentives for us to consolidate.”

Despite the express purpose of the meeting ― to choose one of the three options ― Trustee Laurie Fong stated initially that she was “not comfortable” choosing any scenario. Such a decision, she believed, would create the appearance of telling other school boards and other superintendents “what we think” is best for them.

“We need to have an areawide discussion, and bring people in. And everybody gets to be at the table.”

She later changed her mind and voted in favor of unification, “because it leaves it open for everybody at the table to decide what’s in it for them, what’s in it for all of us.

“We can’t have ‘our kids’ and ‘your kids.’ It has to be all our kids.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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