Tiny, one-room Union School south of Petaluma to stay open

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It was on the edge of passing into history. But a one-room school in the hills south of Petaluma has bought itself some time, preserving for now the handful of such hold-over institutions left in the North Bay.

At the start of January, Union School, with its six students, was looking at having to close because it was one shy of the number of pupils that the state said it needed to remain open.

But after a month of feverish recruiting and publicity, the 120-year-old school has enrolled three more students. That means that the school’s average daily attendance will more than likely remain above six, which is the average the state requires for a school to remain open.

Although Union School still faces significant financial pressure, the new students guarantee it at least another year or two in its small, white clapboard building on Red Hill Road, just over the Marin County line.

Also, two of the new students are in early grades — first and second — meaning the supply of students is healthy for several years.

“It’s very exciting,” said Cynthia Walsh, Union School’s lone teacher and its principal.

So many families inquired that she had to close enrollment and ask them to apply next year, Walsh said, so that the school wouldn’t exceed capacity.

“People are just intrigued and didn’t know we were here,” she said.

Maria Vargas, whose son Saul is in third grade at Union, said her family is relieved.

“I was worried because my boy wanted to stay and finish his school there,” said Vargas, who works on a nearby ranch and has put four other sons through the school. “Now, I’m happy ... My boy, and everybody, was sad. Now, they’re fine.”

However, financial pressures loom. The new school district funding formula that the state implemented in 2013 froze the amount that Union gets each year. And because more than half of Union’s students have transfered from other districts — meaning they have closer school options — the one-school district can’t move up to the second tier of state funding.

The upshot is that Union, which has a $270,000 annual budget and gets about $150,000 from the state each year plus some federal and Lottery money, has been filling the gap from its reserves, said Luke McCann, whom the Marin County Office of Education employs to be superintendent of the Union Joint School District.

Walsh said she and the district’s board are working on fundraising strategies to put the school on solid long-term footing.

“You have a community that’s committed to keeping this type of public education — which is so unique — alive and going,” said McCann. “Although the odds are that it’s going to be more of a challenge than most, who knows.”

There were 115 one-room school houses in Sonoma County in 1916, according to official reports from the time. They began to close as the population grew and urbanized; improved roads and transportation made it easier for students to travel farther to school; and school districts consolidated.

Through the years, though, the dairy ranching industry in the countryside around Union School helped sustain it, with class sizes reaching nearly 30 students in some years.

But as many of the dairy farms closed, and the population aged or moved away, the ranks of prospective students grew thin.

There are now three one-room schools in Sonoma County, all in newer buildings. The three in Marin County remain in their original buildings. At Union School, students walk through the same doors and vestibules, and sit in the same room, as their predecessors for a century have (a small side room was added some years ago to accommodate younger students).

The closest of Marin County’s one-room schools to Union is Lincoln School, on Hicks Valley Road. The two schools have discussed consolidating. But the Union district has resisted that — fearing its identity would be subsumed — and the new pupils may stave that off for a time.

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay

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