Analysis: Could bridge funding help West Sonoma County Schools transition to an ongoing sustainable budget?

This is part of an ongoing reporting series – please see Analysis: What are the options for high school students in West County? online.

The West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) is facing a financial crisis. The district’s budget reflects an approximately $1.35 M gap between revenue and expenses beginning in the 2021-22 school year; reserves are projected to be depleted by June 2022.

There are two ways to close a funding gap: with increased revenues or with decreased expenses. The district has identified several ways to cut costs other than closing a school. Some possibilities include: eliminating under-enrolled class sections; shifting to the more common six period schedule from the current more costly seven period schedule; relocating Laguna High School to the El Molino campus; and/or relocating the district office to the El Molino campus.

Is the solution for ongoing fiscal health to eliminate programs or close a school immediately?

The potential closure of a school campus has been a hot topic of debate at recent school board meetings and in public online forums. Meanwhile, two possible solutions have been proposed that would raise temporary bridge funding and provide time to collect the data needed to restructure with purpose rather than with a crisis response.

At 400 square miles, the WSCUHSD’s students are spread across an area more than twice the size served by Santa Rosa City Schools’ five high schools. The closure of a West County high school would create additional barriers for many rural and economically disadvantaged students who already have school commutes longer than an hour each way. This is especially difficult for adolescents who, studies have shown, perform better in school when they have later start times.

Breakdown of Sonoma County school districts.
Breakdown of Sonoma County school districts.

On the other hand, some parents are concerned that cutting costs by eliminating the seven period day or cutting under-enrolled sections would put their students at a disadvantage because there would be fewer opportunities to take electives or AP classes than is currently possible.

Why wait?

At the request of the WSCUHSD, the Sonoma County Office of Education initiated a unification study in November. The study will evaluate whether there could be (1) an economic benefit and (2) an enhancement of educational programming by combining some or all of the ten elementary districts in our area with the high school district. Once that report is completed in a year to 18 months, any resulting restructuring plans would then be brought to district voters.

Bridge funding designed to last for approximately three to four years would allow the time necessary to complete the unification study, evaluate potential redistricting, conduct strategic planning, and implement any changes. A restructuring of this magnitude should not be undertaken in a hasty manner, if at all possible.

Could a West County Transient Occupancy Tax provide bridge funding?

On Monday evening, November 23, the WSCUHSD Board of Trustees will hear presentations about a proposed West County Transient Occupancy Tax from Fifth District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins and Sonoma County staff at a special school board meeting.

The West Sonoma County Union High School District meets over Zoom on Wednesday, Nov. 18 to discuss bridge funding options for the district’s three high schools.
The West Sonoma County Union High School District meets over Zoom on Wednesday, Nov. 18 to discuss bridge funding options for the district’s three high schools.

Under this innovative solution identified and developed by Supervisor Hopkins, a Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) would levy an additional 4% tax on overnight visitor accommodations. In addition to supporting education in West County, this TOT would also bolster funding for the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District. Bodega bay parcel taxes currently fund the BBFPD, while 80% of emergency calls are to rescue tourists.

Schools are primarily funded based on attendance. A major factor impacting decreased school funding in our area is declining enrollment. Though we love the tourists who visit our beautiful West County, it must be acknowledged that decreased housing stock from vacation rental conversions is a unique impact that tourism brings to our region. West County is home to 43% of the permitted vacation rentals in Sonoma County. This has an impact on the ability of families to live in the area and contributes to our schools’ declining enrollment and subsequent decreased funding.

What kind of oversight would there be for the education revenue generated by the TOT?

The first few years of the proceeds from this tax would keep both comprehensive West County high school campuses open while more data is gathered from the unification study. This would allow time for a well-informed and equitable long-term restructuring to take place.

After that, the funds would no longer be tied to the school district. Per the proposed TOT ordinance: “revenue could be used for “community-based programs that support the education of West County residents of all ages – from infants to seniors, including, but not limited to: early childhood education and affordable childcare programs targeting children from birth to age 5; post-secondary educational opportunities; career technical education; trade schools; ongoing adult education.”

The ordinance also specifies that “the Board of Supervisors will establish an Education Advisory Committee to provide recommendations to the Board of Supervisors on how the portion of the West County Transient Occupancy Tax dedicated to schools and education should be allocated.”

Could a Parcel Tax provide the needed bridge funding?

California schools often augment their revenue with a parcel tax, something we are familiar with here in West County. As recently as March 2020, West County voters passed an 8-year $79 parcel tax.

At the November 18th WSCUHSD School Board meeting, pollster Greg Isom presented generally favorable findings from a new parcel tax feasibility study. However, every ballot measure is a gamble to some extent. It is an expensive endeavor for the district to run an election and if it were to fail the expense would impact the already stressed budget. The school board has thus far declined moving forward with a measure.

“Good governance and equity require that visitors that are benefiting from local government services and housing help pay the burden of the services provided to them, rather than allowing the burden to fall mainly on the resident taxpayers.” Proposed West County Transient Occupancy Tax Ordinance
“Good governance and equity require that visitors that are benefiting from local government services and housing help pay the burden of the services provided to them, rather than allowing the burden to fall mainly on the resident taxpayers.” Proposed West County Transient Occupancy Tax Ordinance

How to Engage

The pandemic has facilitated community engagement at public meetings in California. The Brown Act Open Meeting Law has brought every public meeting onto accessible digital platforms. No longer do engaged citizens need to drive to a public meeting location and spend hours away from their other duties in order to stay informed or provide feedback.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors will consider placing the TOT measure on the upcoming March ballot at their next meeting on November 30th. The meeting will be live streamed at the county website (https://sonoma-county.legistar.com/) and there will be an opportunity for the public to comment.

The West Sonoma County Union High School District learned about potential tax tolerances of the district on Wednesday, Nov. 18 from Isom, the organization hired to conduct a study on feasibility of a new parcel tax.
The West Sonoma County Union High School District learned about potential tax tolerances of the district on Wednesday, Nov. 18 from Isom, the organization hired to conduct a study on feasibility of a new parcel tax.

School board meeting agendas are posted on the district’s website at wscuhsd.org. There is a Zoom link at the top of each agenda for those who would like to participate at the meeting. The meetings are also live streamed and archived at the district’s YouTube channel that can also be accessed through a link on the front page of the district’s website.

Governance does not get any more local than our public schools. There are important decisions and exciting opportunities for long-range planning at West County’s public schools. Now is the time to engage.

Debbie Ramirez is the mom of an Analy student and a recent Analy graduate. She served as a Trustee for the Sebastopol Union School District between 2010 - 2019 while the district navigated through declining enrollment, increased costs, state funding deferrals, strategic planning, school closure, and campus reconfiguration. A long-time fan of public meetings, Debbie appreciates the newfound transparency and opportunities for involvement by way of live streamed public meetings due to the pandemic.

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