The West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) Board of Trustees gave a new presentation on budget realities, scenarios and next steps during its Nov. 4 town hall regarding its upcoming decision on whether to consolidate Analy, El Molino and Laguna high schools.
The board is hosting another special meeting Friday night, Nov. 6 at 6:30 p.m. on the district’s options and a timeline for seeking a district parcel tax. The idea sprang from Wednesday’s public comment and the board will discuss the item with Superintendent Toni Beal’s recommendation that the board approves a contract with Isom Advisors to conduct a survey and examine the feasibility of a local parcel tax, the agenda said.
The Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) needs the board to submit plans to address how they will save or generate $2 million by the 2022-23 school year in its first interim report, which WSCUHSD Chief Business Official Jeff Ogston will deliver to the board on Dec. 9 and to SCOE on Dec. 15, according to Beal.
Ogston’s reporting shows the district operates with a structural deficit of about $1.1 million each year and faces lowering enrollment and attendance leading to chronic financial instability and dwindling electives.
Beal presented a sobering report of four possible scenarios and their repercussions going forward, with the fifth scenario up for discussion Friday night pulled from ideas shared in public comment.
Scenario 1: No consolidation, no budget reduction
Beal described what would happen if the district advanced with no plans to consolidate or make any changes in revenues or expenses. She said the district will become qualified if the board delivers its first interim report at the start of December with no budget cuts or revenue increases planned to address the anticipated $2 million shortfall in the 2022-23 school year.
“A qualified certification means that we may not be able to meet our financial obligations in the current year or two subsequent years,” she said. SCOE would then analyze the budget and formally order a fiscal recovery plan by second interim in March.
If the board continues to make no changes by the second interim, the district will receive a negative certification, meaning it cannot meet its obligations for the current fiscal year or the next and the district loses the ability to borrow money, Beal said
“So, we would not be able to borrow money to cover any of our expenses and we would run out of cash by June of 2022,” she said. “And at that point, when we have run out of cash, which means we won’t be able to pay our bills, we won’t be able to pay the payroll, at that point, we would need to seek a loan from the state because we can no longer borrow money.”
Loans from the state tend to be 20-year loans with interest, Beal said. “So, we’re actually not only borrowing money, we’re increasing our expenditures,” she said.
“And at that point, once you seek a loan from the state, that’s when the state assigns a state administrator to run the district. And the end result is that that is the point that the district loses decision-making power. Now I’m not saying this is going to happen to us, what I’m saying is this would happen if we do nothing, if we make no cuts and we make no additional revenue,” Beal finished.
Scenario 2: No consolidation, budget cuts made
Beal’s second scenario where the board would choose to make budget cuts without consolidating demonstrated how close the district’s financial woes are to scathing the quality of education it can provide.
She said a past superintendent budget committee formed in recent years that developed a worksheet for budget reduction considerations that applied to this year’s cuts in transportation, classified staff, deferral of textbook adoptions and cutting sections of classes, whittling down almost a million of the $1.3 million they set out to save.
Shrinking to a six-period day is the board’s first option to save $1 million in ongoing, year-to-year costs without consolidating, according to the superintendent. She said the board would need to find $600,000 worth of class sections to cut, losing thirty sections and six full-time teachers across the district. First on the chopping block are under-enrolled classes with 25 or fewer students in this year’s class schedule.
“And in all honesty, when we looked at all of these classes, we got to a place where we could not do it.” She said the schools would lose music and art classes, photography, yearbook and even AP and honors classes.
“We would start to get to a place where students [would] be in danger of not being able to take the classes they needed to graduate because we’re at that place in our budget where we have cut just about everything we can cut,” Beal said.
She said the board would then need to identify other areas to cuts to make up what they couldn’t bear to extract from the class schedule, such as sports programs and consolidating Laguna High and the district office onto the El Molino campus with layoffs in administration, classified and counseling staff.
Beal said, “So, if we were to have to cut programs like are listed here, we would lose students and then, of course, we would have to make more cuts. And then as you can tell, that cycle gets worse and worse.”
Scenario 3: Wait to consolidate until the 2022-23 school year
The district would still need to make cuts in ongoing costs for the upcoming school year if it chooses to consolidate in the 2022-23 school year, Beal said. The board would have to find reductions of $400,000 continuing in following years for $800,000 in savings by the time the district consolidates in 2022-23, she said
The board would refer to the superintendent’s budget committee proposal to establish the six-period school day with optional zero and seventh periods, dropping 15 of the original 30 under-enrolled course sections to save $300,000. Beal said the 15 least enrolled classes could change depending on student requests next year, but they would be mostly similar like woodshop, AP music theory, orchestra and others.
Beal said the district could reach $400,000 in savings by cutting administrative positions. Consolidating would save $1.27 million across operational costs with one active campus and losing 12 classified positions and some department chair and coach stipends merging staff and combining classes, as well as unifying under one principal.
Scenario 4: Consolidation in the 2021-22 school year
Beal said consolidating in the 2021-22 school year would be the only budget reduction the board would need to make to meet the required $2 million savings by the subsequent school year because the district would have an ongoing $1.27 million in savings for both years.
“Depending on when the board makes a decision as to whether we should consolidate or not consolidate we have some timelines, some deadlines that we need to observe. And these are layoff notifications,” Beal said.
If the board does not make a decision by May, it must prepare staff in March 2021 for a no-consolidation scenario. Beal said all certificated and administrative positions that could be laid off in any of the scenarios must receive notice before March 15 to give the teachers of the 30 course sections at risk for cuts time to prepare.
All classified positions that could be impacted must receive notice by March 31 by law and all these positions must receive final notice by May 15 if those cuts are determined.
In the meantime, Beal said, the board has a meeting Nov. 18 to provide staff direction to analyze potential consolidation with a California Environmental Quality Act review and examination of California Department of Education of CDE guidelines for school closure and consolidation or surplus property.
Phil Henderson of Orbach Huff Suarez + Henderson clarified that the district must evaluate the environmental and community impact before deciding whether to consolidate and where and that the CEQA study needs to happen earlier than many other decisions down the line, he said.
Henderson said he wanted to address confusion and concern about the board not yet creating a district advisory committee, or 7-11 committee, which is required by statute when a board decides whether to sell or long-term lease vacated property.
According to Henderson, the board acted within CDE guidelines because the 7-11 committee is intended for community involvement on whether to sell property, a decision farther down the road.
Beal said important upcoming dates are when Ogston presents the first interim budget report Dec. 9 on whether it’s qualified, positive or negative, to then be analyzed by SCOE. The board will integrate its newly elected members Dec. 16, when the board will also set its 2021 board meeting calendar.
Community appeals for more time to decide
Community members in attendance expressed more willingness to consolidate the campuses than in previous town halls. Many called on the board to slow down the decision-making that came as such a surprise to parents, while others urged to rip the Band-Aid off.
Michael Ost, parent of an Analy senior, attended to represent the Analy Band Wagon of volunteers supporting the school’s band and orchestra. He said, “After hearing Superintendent Beal’s stark presentation today, the choice we’re hearing for the Analy Band Wagon comes down to either consolidate or lose or gut the band and we choose consolidation.”
Ost said the proposed delay in decision-making would hurt the program and advocated for consolidation in the 2021-22 school year.
Lauren Keegan, a 2016 Analy graduate, said she also supported consolidation next year, having benefited immensely as a low-income interdistrict transfer from Rohnert Park. “I am so fortunate that Analy and the West Sonoma County Union High School District gave me that experience, and I was in all of those programs that were listed in the thirty sections that were on the chopping block.”
The rivalry between Analy and El Molino schools resurfaced in the comments as some advocated for Analy to be the remaining site and others pointed out the struggles of students traveling far distances from the coast.
Julie McClelland, the El Molino and Analy school librarian, said, “I find that the biases and assumptions by the Analy supporters that the campus to be chosen will be theirs, I wonder if they would be so supportive if consolidation ends up being done at the El Molino campus and would they be so glib if their students had such a long drive.”
“There’s so many great ideas coming out of the parent community right now and a genuine willingness to roll up our sleeves and get to work,” said Lynda Hopkins, Sonoma County 5th District Supervisor.
She said the scenarios presented felt like a failure to plan after voters passed a parcel tax, Measure B, earlier in the year. She said she was not against consolidation, but against rushing it and suggested seeking bridge-funding and working with the state for other funding to examine unifying with other local districts.
Josh Beniston said he sensed that the Forestville community felt the process was rushed and he encouraged the board to not move any faster than consolidating in the 2022-23 school year if it was inevitable because the potential impacts of closure would ripple into the community.
Lily Smedshammer, president the West Sonoma County Teacher’s Association, said calls to delay consolidation to complete a longer CEQA study would push teachers facing preliminary layoff notices in March to other districts.
“They will have to wait for at least four months before finding out if they’ll have the ability to pay their rent and take care of their families. It is torture,” she said. “And for what? A longer version of the study that would have yielded the same results. This is a stall tactic meant to punish the district for consolidating our schools, but the people you are punishing are our teachers.”
Edit: A previous version of this article stated that the first interim report needed to be to SCOE on Dec. 9. The report is due to be presented to the school board on Dec. 9 and to SCOE on Dec. 15.