7th period protest Nov. 2019

Students protest proposed cuts to 7th period at an event set up by a new watchdog group called West Sonoma County Schools Community Action Coalition.

Some students in west county like high school so much they fought hard for the right to stay there an extra hour every day. Upon learning that the district was planning on cutting 7th period for budget reasons, students began protesting at board meetings and rallying in Sebastopol’s downtown square.

They were so upset about the plan that their parents actually formed a new watchdog organization — the West Sonoma County Schools Community Action Coalition — whose first order of business was saving 7th period.

And, much to everyone’s surprise: it worked.

On Friday, Nov. 15, West Sonoma County Union High School District Superintendent Toni Beal sent a message to Coalition co-founders Adam Parks and Carmen Sinigiani, letting them know that the high school district had dropped its plan to cut 7th period.

“I wanted you to be one of the first to know that I have removed the six-period day from the Fiscal Recovery Plan option list,” Beal wrote. “I will not be recommending that we pursue a six-period day for next school year.  This next year we will do a more complete analysis of any potential savings of a six-period day and, depending on our budget status next year, decide at that time if this is an option that the board would want to consider.”

In truth, Beal was getting pressure from all sides: from kids, from parents and from the teachers union, which had recently made keeping 7th period one of its demands in negotiations during the strike.

“Super exciting news this morning: the paradigm has shifted,” Parks said in a phone call on Friday afternoon. “Toni came to the table this morning with the idea that our group has been promoting since we started this whole thing — that of growth and marketing, and raising money and raising awareness, and she’s taken the idea of the six-period day off the table.”

Advocates made several arguments for the 7th period day, ranging from the educational and psychological importance of electives to the appeal that a 7th period held for kids contemplating transferring in from other districts. El Molino and Analy are the only high schools in Sonoma County that offer a 7th period. (For more on this reasoning, see previous Sonoma West articles, “Watchdog group forms to protect 7th period” and “Student protests support teachers and oppose move to six-period day.”)

Although Beal and school board members were well aware of the charms of 7th period, they were feeling under pressure from the county department of education, which was demanding that the perennially strapped high school district cut $600,000 from its budget for 2019-20.

Cutting 7th period would have done that in one fell swoop. The district board was scheduled to drop the axe on 7th period at their Nov. 13 board meeting, but that was cancelled because of the strike.

Parks said he hopes the district’s change of heart heralds a new era in the district’s approach to budgeting — one that comes from focusing on what the district has in  abundance (a supportive community dedicated to education and top flight schools) and not on what it lacks (enough money from the state).

And speaking of support from the community: the district was already planning to put a new parcel tax on the March 2020 ballot to replace the current parcel tax, which is expiring this year. The current parcel tax is $48 per parcel per year and raises $1.1 million. The district was considering asking for a $72 parcel tax, but it may need to ask for more to continue funding 7th period and pay teacher salaries.

In negotiations with the union this week, the district suggested using the parcel tax to pay for part of the 12% salary increase (over three years) that the union is demanding. The union initially rejected this suggestion, preferring to have their raise inscribed in the budget rather than contingent on a parcel tax, which might or might not pass. (Ultimately, they agreed to have the parcel tax fund the third year of their raise.)

For the district, the failure of the parcel tax is not an option.

“We all know that we kind of don’t have a choice to have it not pass,” board member Jeanne Fernandes said at a board meeting in June. “We have got to get the support out there.”

In her message to Parks and Sinigiani, Beal echoed the importance of the parcel tax.

“We are counting on the Community Action Coalition’s help in passing our parcel tax and in marketing our schools,” Beal wrote. She also asked to set up a time to talk about this with Parks and other coalition members.

“This is super exciting for our group,” Parks said, thrilled to be taking an offensive rather than defensive approach to the district’s budget woes. “Now we can set about figuring out what the future of our district looks like.”

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