Analysis: What are the options for high school students in West County?
Potential campus closure
An upcoming decision by the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) Board of Trustees to potentially close one of our high school campuses has taken the West County community by surprise. There are many who would like more time to evaluate the community impact of closing one or more of our campuses and explore potential alternatives to a school closure. Meanwhile, others fear losing arts, elective, and athletics programming if consolidation does not occur as soon as the start of the 2021-22 school year.
While this crisis may seem sudden, for those who have been paying close attention to the district’s public budget reports, it does not come as a complete surprise. Budget analysis indicates that it is not possible to reduce expenditures enough in the short term to keep both schools open without significant programming reductions.
School budgeting is complex. There are several different funding sources and various regulations governing the use of funds. While the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) is accountable for fiscal oversight of local districts, it does not provide governance or operational oversight. When a school district cannot show solvency for the current school year and two consecutive school years, its budget is certified “qualified” rather than “positive.” Qualified status triggers a mandate from the county office of education for a “fiscal recovery plan” ensuring stability for that three year period.
If a district reaches insolvency, the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) is called in. The state legislator then writes a piece of legislation providing an interest-bearing loan to meet payroll and other expenses and a state administrator is assigned to run the district and make budget cuts.The priority, at that point, becomes fiscal solvency. The school board becomes inactive and the community loses the ability to provide input regarding programming, and essentially all local control and consideration for issues beyond the bottom line are taken away from the community. Absent additional funding or an ongoing budget reduction of $1M / year, WSCUHSD projects insolvency by June 2022.
Separately, at the request of the WSCUHSD, SCOE has just begun a process to conduct a district unification study. This study will look at various configurations and funding scenarios to determine whether combining any or all of the area districts would result in economic benefit and an enhancement of educational programming. The community would ultimately make the final decision regarding any redistricting via an election.
While it is too early to know what the recommendations will be, several possibilities include:
One fully unified district combining the high schools with all ten elementary districts (Sebastopol Union, Twin Hills, Gravenstein, Forestville, Oak Grove, Harmony, Monte Rio, Guerneville, Montgomery & Fort Ross).
Two districts, with each high school combining with its feeder elementary districts into an El Molino District and an Analy District.
It may be determined that one or several districts would not benefit from combining at all.
This process will take several years, so any economic benefit from a district unification will not solve the current budget issues. As it stands now, without an ongoing $1M in new funding, the high school district must close a school, and / or make deep programming cuts beginning with the 2021-22 school year.
Could a parcel tax provide the bridge funding needed to maintain status quo while redistricting study takes place?
Our public schools are community assets. The culture of our communities will be impacted by a high school closure. Our local economies, traffic flow, and quality of life in the towns where these schools are located will be impacted. Although current funding does not allow it, our community could benefit for generations to come if we slow down a school closure decision in order to provide time for these alternatives to be explored.
On November 6, the Board of Trustees contracted with Isom Advisors to conduct a preliminary survey to evaluate the likelihood that the West County voters would approve a new temporary parcel tax measure to provide bridge funding to allow the status quo to continue until the redistricting conversation happens. The parcel tax viability study will be reported at the upcoming November 18 WSCUHSD board meeting.
Subject to the feasibility study, the Board will determine if it is appropriate to place a parcel tax measure on an upcoming ballot this Spring. It is a costly endeavor due primarily to ballot printing costs.
Could the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors create a West County Transient Occupancy Tax Area?
At their upcoming meeting on November 17, the Board of Supervisors will consider establishing a new West County Transient Occupancy Tax area to levy an additional 4% Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) on overnight visitors. These taxes would offset the impacts of tourism experienced by area residents due to the prevalence of vacation rental housing. If taken to the voters and approved in March, the ordinance is expected to generate approximately $2.7 million annually. In addition to providing bridge funding to keep our schools open, half of the new revenue would go to the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District to support medical / rescue services.
Even if one or both of these prospective tax measures move forward, fiscal responsibility would mandate that the district continue evaluating budget saving measures as a contingency plan in the event that a tax measure is not passed by the voters and new revenues do not materialize.
Debbie Ramirez is the mom of a current Analy student and a recent 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 livestreamed public meetings due to the pandemic.