High school district cuts seventh period for 2020-21 school year and ponders new parcel tax
It was a full house once again at the February board meeting of the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD). Most of the audience, including dozens of students, had come to object to the main plank of the district’s new fiscal recovery plan, which proposed cutting the high schools’ seventh-period as a way of saving $500,000.
The district’s budget, which has a structural deficit of $400,000 to $500,000, was approved by the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) last month, but given “qualified” status, which required the district to submit a fiscal recovery plan to SCOE, showing how it intended to address the deficit.
Closing the West County Charter Middle School, which the board voted to do in January, nudged the district $352,000 closer to its goal, but the bulk of the savings was created by simply lopping an hour off the end of the school day, starting in September 2020, which saved $500,000 in one fell swoop.
The district was initially faced with making the switch from seven to six periods this coming September, but Superintendent Toni Beal persuaded SCOE to wait a year to allow the district to discuss the change with the community.
“We get one more year,” Beal said. “As you know, last year there was a budget advisory committee that included community input about a whole bunch of different options that the district might consider, and one of those was the move to a six- rather than a seven-period day. Some of the other items that were on the list included reducing transportation routes, reducing special education costs, consolidating the comprehensive high schools into one location … In our conversations with SCOE, they said they would give us another year to have those conversations with our community.”
The district will also be convening a superintendent’s committee of teachers and other stakeholders to dig into the budget and explore every possible alternative. The committee will present these alternatives to the board and to the public in a series of workshops.
Moving from seven to six periods wasn’t popular with the assembled audience — 15 speakers spoke for two minutes each, and all of them unanimously opposed the cut in hours.
Students worried that without a seventh period — and with the constraints imposed by state and school requirements — they wouldn’t have time to take any electives.
“It will eliminate students’ ability to take the enjoyable creative electives and will damage our teachers ability to adequately prepare to teach their classes,” said Maggie McKelvey, a transfer student from Roseland who attends El Molino.
McKelvey also took issue with the district’s spending priorities. “Every day at school, I walk by an eyesore of a construction site. I cannot express how infuriating it is to see this multi-million dollar performing arts center go up as we struggle to find funding for our drama program. It’s really ridiculous. I understand there’s a budget to abide by, but this is not the way to go about it.”
“Six periods is simply a mistake,” said parent Julie Hunter, “The source of this problem is diminishing enrollment, and what we’re doing is finding more ways for students to avoid this district. We have to get over that.”
Hunter also brought up the issue of the money that is wasted by having multiple small school districts — and therefore multiple administrations — in west county.
Others had objections to the way information about the period cut had leaked out, causing havoc with students signing up for next year’s classes. Michael Ost, a parent representing Analy Bandwagon, the funding arm of Analy’s music program, said, “This process has really been a mess. It’s caused so much confusion … Kids are signing up for six periods right now, instead of seven. There’s complete chaos; information is all over the place. I really wish you could have worked this out internally before you tried to voice it out to thousands of people. It’s been a mess.”
El Molino parent Steve Griffith implored parents in the district to get busy calling legislators to increase funding for education and also encouraged the district to get creative with its fundraising.
“We have an income problem, not a budget-cutting problem,” he said.
Board members themselves expressed gratitude for the extra time SCOE had granted the district and interest in the solutions that might come from the superintendent’s committee on the budget.
“I am so relieved that we have some breathing room to make an informed decision,” said board chairperson Diane Landry. “We have a year to study this … if we can come up with other things that save $400,000 to $500,000, there’s an opportunity for that.”
Time to re-up on the parcel tax
At the same meeting, the board also floated the idea of putting a new parcel tax on the ballot.
Chief budget officer Mary Schafer noted that the current parcel tax, Measure K, which voters approved in 2012, is about to expire in the 2020-21 school year. The Measure K parcel tax is $48 per parcel and brings in roughly $1.1 million to the district every year.
Measure K was an update of an earlier parcel tax, also called Measure K, which voters approved in 2005. Since the most recent Measure K is about to expire, voters could see a new parcel tax on their ballots sometime this year.
“The parcel tax has been a valuable support for the district,” Schafer said. “We’re just getting toward the end of it, which is scary.”
Measure K funds are supposed to fund the following things: school libraries; shop, culinary, technology and other career education classes; art, music and drama classes; college prep courses; and student counseling services.
Every year the board has to approve a three-year plan for Measure K expenditures. The board unanimously approved the plan laid out by Schafer and also directed Superintendent Toni Beal to explore what it would take to put a new parcel tax on the ballot.
“It seems like we need to start that work now, given our current budget challenges,” board member Kellie Noe said. “We definitely want to get out in front of this so we don’t lose an additional million dollars.”
Landry agreed. “It was very painful when we had to cut over a million dollars very recently, and I don’t look forward to doing that again.”