Students, teachers and parents continue their protest as district ponders moving Laguna High to the El Molino campus
In December, teachers at Laguna High School, west county’s continuation school, learned that the West Sonoma County Union High School District was considering moving Laguna from its campus in Sebastopol to an empty wing of classrooms on the El Molino campus.
Looking to close a $400,000-plus budget gap, Superintendent Toni Beal floated the idea of moving Laguna as part of a larger discussion of different ways to solve the deficit. This and several other cost-cutting measures will be coming up for a vote at the next school board meeting on March 4.
According to the district, moving Laguna to the El Molino campus will save approximately $200,000, mostly in salaries. Combining the two schools would allow the district to cut three positions — a secretary, a guidance counselor and a janitor. The position of principal at Laguna would become a vice principal position at El Molino. Renovations to get El Molino ready to host Laguna would cost around $50,000.
In response to this proposal, Laguna teachers, administrators, parents, students and former students have packed the last three school board meetings to plead with the board not to move the school.
At the January school board meeting, Laguna parent Judy Robinson fought back tears as she spoke to the board, recalling what a difference Laguna High School had made in her son’s life.
“It was a blessing,” she said. “It saved his life. It turned my child around and gave him a will to live and a new outlook on life. The teachers there are just amazing. They don’t only teach the kids, but also guide them, and they’re also their friends. I just can’t say enough about Laguna. It gave my son his life back.”
Hitting the streets
On Friday, Feb. 21, Robinson took her opposition to the streets. In the morning, she walked back and forth in front of Laguna with a sign saying “Keep Laguna @ Laguna.” She handed out flyers to parents as they dropped their children off at the school. At noon, she stood at the corner of highways 12 and 116 with two other parents to alert the community of the potential move.
Most of the parents Robinson spoke to were surprised to learn that the district was considering moving the school. Lindsay Apkarian, Laguna’s principal, wouldn’t comment, but some teachers said the district had asked Apkarian not to talk about the move with parents.
For her part, Beal said she never told anyone not to talk to the parents about it.
“I have asked that she tell teachers and parents the same message that we are giving everyone — that a potential move of Laguna to the El Molino campus is only one possible option for the board in addressing any budget shortfall. I’ve also asked her to point out the potential positives to the move for Laguna — additional elective options and facilities — that Laguna is saying they need to address their low graduation rate.”
The arguments for keeping Laguna at Laguna
Advocates for keeping Laguna where it is make several arguments. Since a large proportion of Laguna students come from Sebastopol or Santa Rosa, Laguna advocates question whether students or their parents would actually make the drive to Forestville. They say that some students would drop out or switch districts, and that the decline in enrollment would eat away at that $200,000 savings.
Robinson said that Forestville was “out of the way” for most parents and that the current Laguna campus, being close to Highway 12, is closer to the route that most parents in west county take to work and is therefore more convenient for families.
Beal said 57% of the students at Laguna come from Analy, with 43% coming from El Molino. She said that if the district decided to move Laguna to El Molino that the district would provide bus service.
During public comment at the board meetings over the last few months, several people questioned whether students who had left El Molino for Laguna would feel safe, from a psychological perspective, going back to the campus they left behind.
Others urged the district not to make changes that it couldn’t take back.
“For $200,000 savings, you’re making a permanent decision that can’t be changed when times get better,” said Laguna English teacher Gianna de Persis Vona.
The core arguments against moving Laguna, however, boil down to this: students and teachers alike argue that Laguna provides a special culture of caring for the district’s most vulnerable students and that that culture would be compromised by the move to El Molino.
“If we dissolve our school and move to another campus, we will no longer be able to serve the at risk youth of our community with the attention, dedication and full range of services that we currently provide,” De Persis Vona said. “We need a site principal whose only job is to keep our school running and to meet the ever-changing and ever-challenging needs of our kids. We need a full-time counselor who is exclusively dedicated to the incredibly complicated and time-consuming job of making sure our kids have the credits they need to graduate. We need the pride that comes with having our own campus where our students can be reminded every day that they are not lesser than anyone else, that they are just as smart and just as important as any other student out there.”
The argument for moving Laguna
Beal said that although no final decisions have been made, “We’ve gone out and looked at the El Molino campus and identified a couple potential areas where Laguna could be located in a way that it would still preserve the separate-school feel and allow Laguna students to still have access to the services and the facilities on the larger campus.”
Beal said the idea of moving Laguna is rooted in something deeper than budget considerations — though that’s a powerful motivator. She said she originally came up with the idea after conversations with Apkarian about the need for more hands-on, project-based learning at the Laguna.
“Laguna is in CSI, meaning they were identified by the state as a school that needed ‘comprehensive support and intervention’ because their graduation rates are so low. They were given close $170,000 this year, and they’re going to receive close $260,000 for next year. And the goal is to increase graduation rates,” Beal said. “So they’re going through a process where they’re identifying ‘What do our students need?’ and one of the conversations that we’ve had is that their students need hands-on electives. They need pathways. They need connections to real-world, project-based learning.”
Beal said the current Laguna campus is not built for that, but that El Molino is.
“At El Molino, we have a school population that is getting smaller every year, and there are facilities on that campus that are not being used. And there are teachers on that campus that don’t have full-time contracts because there are not enough students.”
“This is where this idea came up, like ‘Wow, what if Laguna went to El Mo?’” she said. “There are empty rooms, there are empty facilities — there’s an entire empty shop. There’s a dance studio. There’s PE facilities, there’s fields,” she said. “Every time I walk past Laguna and I see the kids on that tiny little basketball court, I think, ‘Wow, think of resources that they could access at El Mo.’ So that’s where this all came from.”
It’s just one choice on a list of possible cuts
Beal said that moving Laguna is just one option on a long list of possible cuts and changes that the district will be considering at its March 4 meeting.
As of December, that list included the following: 1) Cutting the district’s ballooning services budget — much of which is spent on outside special education services and legal expenses; 2) Cutting seventh period; 3) Changing state funding from LCFF to Basic Aid; 4) Consolidating with nearby school districts into a larger district; 5) Consolidating school campuses, including closing one or more of the district’s high schools. (See the Sonoma West article, “Should Laguna High move to El Molino?” Dec. 23, 2019, for an in-depth discussion of these points.)
Beal said she would be releasing a new version of this list, with several additional items, at the March 4 board meeting.
One new possibility involves changing the teachers’ and other employees’ health package to the one offered by CalPERs, a move that could potentially save $400,000.
“In the negotiations with the teachers union, one of the suggestions and agreements that we made was that we would investigate CalPERS as a potential healthcare provider so we’ve been doing that,” Beal said. “It looks very promising. The teachers union is still considering whether or not the CalPERS plan can serve their members.”
What would happen to the Laguna High School campus?
There is a lot of misinformation floating around about what would happen to the current Laguna campus should the continuation school be moved to El Molino. According to one rumor, the campus would be sold to a developer who would build low-income housing, but Beal said this is flatly untrue.
“The district cannot legally sell the property without repaying the state of California back for what it paid to build the school in the first place,” Beal said.
As such, she said there are no plans to sell the property.
There’s been some talk, Beal said, about developing the campus into affordable housing for district teachers, who have difficulty paying rent in this high-cost-of-living area, but this is just an idea. No decisions have made.
The next West Sonoma County Union High School District board meeting is Wednesday, March 4, at 6 p.m. at El Molino High School, 7050 Covey Road, Forestville.