In one of their largest protests to date, dozens of teachers, parents and students, dressed in red in solidarity with the teachers union, showed up at the West Sonoma County Union High School District board meeting to protest low teacher pay and a plan to cut seventh period.
Several people also protested the board’s decision to meet on Oct. 9 — Yom Kippur — noting it would be like having a board meeting on Christmas Day or Easter.
Update on talks with the teachers
The district and the teachers union presented their presentations to the fact-finding committee from the Public Employees Relations Board on Oct. 7. They are now awaiting the neutral factfinder’s report, which should be delivered by the end of the month.
Brian Miller told the board during public comment, “I need you to start thinking about what are you going to do when the fact finder disagrees with you because that’s on its way. There is no way that the fact finder is going to come back and agree with your number of zero and with your number of 3% (in raises), while cutting our health care benefits. It’s not going to happen.”
Cutting seventh period
Because the high school district’s three-year budget was in the red, the Sonoma County Board of Education required them to file a fiscal recovery plan earlier this year, explaining how they were going to balance the budget. In particular, it required the district to cut $600,000 from the 2020-21 school year.
As a part of the fiscal recovery plan, the board said earlier this year that it was going to cut seventh period — a move that was hotly contested by the public at the time. The board agreed to revisit this decision — calling it a “placeholder” — while the superintendent’s budget committee looked at other options.
Superintendent Toni Beal said that her committee looked at several options, including cutting seventh period, as a way of shaving $600,000 from the budget.
“We’re also looking at consolidating schools, possibly going to basic aid status and consolidating districts. We’re looking at how we can reduce funds by reducing transportation and trying to reduce special ed expenditures as well. The purpose of that committee is to look at all of those options,” Beal told the board last week.
Unfortunately, Beal said, cutting seventh period was the only near-term solution among all those options.
“For next school year, when you look at the other items on our list, the reality is that those things will take more than a year to implement,” she said. “The reality is that there aren’t many other options other than the six-period day that we know of right now that will produce the amount of money that we need.”
She also noted that the board had to make a final decision soon because the district needed to start planning for next year.
“We’re going out to schools in January, which means we need to have an idea of what that schedule looks like and what classes will be offered. So as a committee, as a district, that’s something we need to start doing now. We need to say this is what we’re doing and move.”
Several students rose to comment on this plan, arguing that it will deprive students of enriching electives, which they said were good for both academically driven and struggling students — providing a necessary break for one and a lifeline for the other. Several students argued that having a seventh period is one of the things that set the district apart from others in Sonoma County.
Perhaps the best argument and quip of the evening came from El Molino student and nationally ranked high school wrestler Hannah Riccioli.
“This decision will lead to fewer students, which will then lead to less money, which will subsequently lead to more budget cuts,” she said. “By cutting the seventh period, you will put yourself into a self-inducing cycle of loss. I want you to ask yourselves, ‘What will make our district schools unique after this cut?’ because it will no longer be our extended period day and it will no longer be our ample elective choices. Is the only truly unique aspect of our district going to be the underpayment of our staff? Because I guarantee you that will not draw students in.”
Her comments drew whoops and cheers from the crowd.
When it came for board members to respond, all thanked the superintendent for the work her committee had done and said the board had no choice, given the budget constraints, but to cut seventh period. Board members Ted Walker and Jeanne Fernandes said cutting seventh period was preferable to closing one of the high schools.
“I think that would be astronomically divisive and would also break a lot of people's hearts,” Fernandes said. “And personally I can't imagine that happening.”
Walker and board member Kellie Noe expressed the hope that the high school could find creative ways to continue to offer electives within a six-period schedule. Noe, who has young children, burst into tears at the start of her response and had to leave the room to compose herself.
“There’s a lot of fear around the six period day because we just don't understand what that could potentially be like,” she said when she returned. “It would really be sad for my daughter if it was all about not being able to take music or not being able to take art because I know that that's really important to her … so I hope that when we have this discussion again perhaps we can say 'OK, well, if we go to this option, these are different scenarios and this is what it might look like.’”
Cutting seventh period was slated as a discussion item at the board meeting, so no vote was taken, but expect it to return as an action item on the November agenda.