West Sonoma County parents ask for more time before merging Analy, El Molino, Laguna high schools
Jeanne Broome has known for the past year and a half about the financial hurdles the West County Union High School District is facing. As the student representative for El Molino High School on the district’s Board of Trustees, it’s part of her role.
But a proposed solution that is set to be put before the board as soon as November caught even her by surprise.
“I wish that at some point in the past couple of years, they had brought to the public the idea that consolidation might be ... the ‘solution’ to our deficit spending issue if we don’t come up with something else,” said Broome, a senior.
The “consolidation” she referred to is the potential merging of her high school with Analy and Laguna high schools in Sebastopol, an action that could shut down one of the schools as soon as next year. The timeline, she said, made her feel “really kind of alarmed.”
Broome is not alone. At a virtual town hall Wednesday night, the second of three hosted by the school district to discuss its financial outlook and whether to merge the three high schools, families repeatedly demanded more time to consider the options and emphasized the importance of caring for all school communities through the process.
“I just think we’ve got so many options to combine to accomplish what we need to in the short run, so that we can figure out what’s going to be real in the long run,” said Julie Hunter, a community member. “That’s what we should be waiting for. Let’s get all the facts.”
Jeff Ogston, the district’s chief business official, began the meeting by laying out the facts that make the district’s case for consolidating the three schools, including potential alternatives it had previously considered and the seriousness of the growing deficit.
Rising expenses and falling revenue from factors such as declining enrollment — a problem affecting many California school districts — combine to form a dreary picture of the West County Union High School District’s financial future. By the 2022-23 school year, the school district projects a budget deficit of $2 million.
The district’s financial woes are not new. Superintendent Toni Beal, who has led the district since 2018, said administrators had examined cuts to approach a balanced budget “more times than not” in the past decade.
Economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic sped up the timeline, Ogston said.
“We had conversations last year and then the pandemic hit,” he said. “And that has changed the conversation moving forward.”
His presentation highlighted an anticipated savings of $1.2 million annually by closing Analy or El Molino, primarily due to staff reductions. After two years, that would effectively close the deficit.
But families said they wanted more discussion before closing down one of the high schools. Families and teachers are preoccupied with distance learning, they said, and the timeline to a decision is short. Officials are working to provide the school board with a plan to consider adopting at its Nov. 18 meeting.
Town hall attendees were full of questions about the logistics of arriving at a decision about which campus to close, how to put equity at the forefront, and how to avoid seeing the closed campus become a source of blight.
Jessalee Mills, a Forestville resident, brought up the California Department of Education’s guide on best practices for closing a school. Among other points, it stresses the importance of forming a district advisory committee to help steer the decision-making process.
"I ask that you do your due diligence, and you do your fact-finding, before you make an irrational, uninformed decision,“ she said.
Lynda Hopkins, who represents west Sonoma County on the Board of Supervisors, commented that county officials are aware of the school board’s undertaking. Any decision to close one of the large high schools, she warned, must comply with the California Environmental Quality Act because it could lead to urban decay, Hopkins said.
“Both the El Molino and Analy campus are hubs of community activity and those hubs greatly exceed the basic educational functions of a high school,” she said, quoting from a letter sent to the board Friday from Permit Sonoma Director Tennis Wick.
The district has outlined its plan in phases, the first of which involves deciding whether or not to consolidate, and in what time frame to do so. Phase Two would involve choosing the campus. In the letter referenced by Hopkins, Wick cautioned against what he called “piecemealing.”
“A preliminary decision to consolidate is part of the whole of the action subject to CEQA, and adequate CEQA review cannot occur without that site-specific data and analysis,” Hopkins said, citing the Wick letter. “Which would include things like traffic patterns and other issues.”