Close to Home: A plea for unity in west county

The financial struggles we have faced at the west county high school district have not been a secret.|

As we come to the end of the year, and transition to new board leadership at the West Sonoma County Union High School District, we want to reflect on the past 18 months. In March 2020, we would not have imagined we would be navigating board member recalls, a lawsuit, potential rebranding and a pandemic.

At that time, we were engaged in developing the Portrait of a Graduate to create a plan to support the district’s future for educating and connecting with students. Our primary goal has always been to help students develop and have meaningful education outcomes.

Jeanne Fernandes
Jeanne Fernandes
Kellie Noe
Kellie Noe

The financial struggles we have faced at the west county high school district have not been a secret. Always looming in the background were the yearly reminders from the Sonoma County Office of Education that our budget had a structural deficit that was not going to get better if we did not make drastic changes to how we did business.

Over the years, the board, with advice from our leadership staff, had implemented changes to address that deficit to avoid having to lay off staff or cut vital arts, music and career technical education programs.

Nevertheless, no matter how hard the board tried to implement measures to fix the deficit, cuts continued and the disparity between the offerings at Analy and El Molino high schools grew. It is difficult to offer the same types of classes when you have fewer students to teach. This leads to fewer courses being offered.

Allowing lower Russian River students to have the same opportunities as other students in the district, coupled with the continued failing financial picture, led us to a very difficult decision to consolidate our two comprehensive campuses to save $1.2 million.

When it came to consolidation, it was clear to us that the status quo would result in 540 students at El Molino not receiving the same opportunities that were available at Analy simply due to enrollment. For many students, school is the only place they get access to music classes and sports, because some students can’t access these opportunities through private programs.

This is an equity issue. We had to act to reduce the growing disparity between education programs at the two schools.

We bring a combined 30 years of experience to our school district and have witnessed our share of successes and joys, concerns and contempt. But this past year and half has been especially trying.

We are glad the recall didn’t move forward, saving the district at least $100,000 in election costs. We were disappointed with regard to the lawsuit challenging the decision to combine the high schools. It didn’t have any merit and cost the district upward of $200,000 of bond money. These are moneys the district no longer has to improve our schools or promote district unity and a better rebranding process.

We realize the past 18 months have been extremely difficult, and we wish school funding could be changed to support a small, less urban school model, but this isn’t the current reality.

We also recognize that it will take all of us working together as a community to move through these challenging times. Our board will continue to engage with students, staff and community members in our search for a balanced budget and a world-class educational program.

We would like to ask everyone in west Sonoma County to work together to support our students. That is why we are here — to do what is best for our students. Please join us in working toward a west county education model we can all be proud of and support.

Jeanne Fernandes and Kellie Noe are members of the West Sonoma County Union High School Board of Education.

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