A new parent watchdog group has formed in reaction to proposed cuts and continuing budget issues at the high school district.
Analy parent Adam Parks feels guilty about the scant amount of attention he’s paid over the years to down-ballot issues such as the school board.
“When you think about it, they probably have more effect on our lives than most of the things at the top of the ballot,” he said. “I’ll tell you one thing: that won’t happen again.”
He said much the same thing to the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) school board at its Oct. 9 meeting — and his words hung in the air like the threat that they were — namely “We will vote you out.”
Parks, the owner of Victorian Farmstead meats and co-president of Analy Boosters, wasn’t the only one speaking that night. Dozens of teachers, parents and students turned out to support the teachers demand for higher pay and to protest the district’s plan to cut seventh period.
In her response, Superintendent Toni Beal said that of all the options her budget committee had considered, the option of cutting seventh period was the most realistic response to the county’s demand that the district shave $600,000 as a part of its fiscal recovery plan. The county office of education ordered the district to create a fiscal recovery plan because the three-year budget showed a deep dive into the red.
“The mandate from Sonoma County Office of Education is that we reduce our budget by $600,000 for the next school year,” Beal told the crowd at the board meeting. “When you look at the other items on our list — going to basic aid, possibly consolidating campuses, reducing special ed funds — the reality is that those things will take more than a year.”
In response to the plan to cut 7th period, Parks and Carmen Sinigiani created a new organization, the West Sonoma County Schools Community Action Coalition. The group’s immediate goal is to stop the school board from cutting 7th period — the period most students use to take electives.
“We’re exploring all the options we have to keep this from happening,” Parks said.
The organization makes several claims against the district, which they sent in a detailed email to supporters. The email raises questions about the district’s budgeting process; damns the district for not requesting more time from the county to deal with the budget shortfall; and builds a case for the importance of electives. (Read a long excerpt from this letter at left.)
Park said his organization is asking parents to appear at the next board meeting (the board meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 13, was cancelled) to ask that any action on this item be tabled until the teachers contract is resolved.
The long game
The watchdog group’s longer-term goal is to try and figure out how the high school district got into the mess that it’s in.
“We have attorneys and accountants in our group,” Parks said. “They’re taking a very close look at the budget and what’s been going on. My role has been to be the spokesperson for the group.”
Over the last few weeks, Parks and friends have been taking a crash course on the inner workings of the district, meeting with Beal, CBO Mary Schafer, Herman Hernandez (their representative on the Sonoma County Board of Education), District 5 Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, as well as school board members. They even contacted Renee Mayne, the neutral fact-finder from the Public Employees Relations Board, who authored the fact-finding report on the labor dispute between the district and the teachers union.
Parks, who said the Oct. 9 meeting was the first high school board meeting he’d ever gone to, said the district seemed willing to work with his group at first, but as they pushed for more detail, Parks said they felt stonewalled.
“Basically they gave us the runaround,” he said. “We asked to sit in on the superintendent’s budget committee and the district’s budget advisory committee. They said, ‘No.’”
“We’re still very interested in having a collaborative relationship with the district,” Park said, “but they’re not making it easy.”
Although Parks’ watchdog organization hasn’t officially taken a position on the district’s dispute with the teachers union, the group’s skepticism about the district’s finances is fueled in part by the teachers union's claims.
The teachers union has repeatedly pointed out that the district’s budget predictions at the beginning of the year are often far more dire than the unaudited actuals at the end of the year — noting that the district often ends up with $500,000 to $1,000,000 more than expected. Out of a $25 million budget that’s a variance of between 2 to 4%, which is generally considered acceptable.
“It is quite conceivable that the budgeting process alone is the cause of the shortfall, which is on paper only,” Sinigiani wrote in the coalition’s email to parents. “We remain unconvinced that the money is just not there.”