Forum outlines the pros and cons of Measure A
By Zoë Strickland, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, February 8, 2021
The Sonoma County League of Women Voters hosted a forum devoted to discussing the pros and cons of the two measures on the ballot for west county voters in March. The first, Measure A, asks voters to approve a $48 parcel tax for West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) and the other, Measure B, asks voters to approve a 4% increase to west county’s transient occupancy tax (TOT) for hotels and short-term rentals to help support west county schools and fire districts.
“This is an educational forum that will allow opposing sides of Measure A and (Measure) B to discuss their point of view with the goal of informing voters,” said Pamela Stevens, moderator of the event.
This article discusses the forum on Measure A. (See the article on the Measure B forum here.)
Measure A, put forth by the WSCUHSD, is a three-year extension on an existing parcel tax and is meant to provide short-term bridge funding for district music, arts and career technical education programs, according to Kellie Noe, a WSCUHSD board trustee who spoke on the forum as a private citizen — not on behalf of the board — during the Feb. 4 forum.
“What’s important is that this will allow us the needed time to do strategic planning to determine the best long-term solution for students in our district,” Noe said. “Unfortunately, the scopes and needs of the West Sonoma County Union High School District are far more than the current funding sources (that) are available through our traditional funding sources. We need to rely on local parcel tax for part of this funding to fund critical programs for our schools.”
The parcel tax, she said, would support the district while it takes time to work on long-term planning for the district and its schools.
Should the measure not pass, Noe said that funding for programs and teachers would need to be reduced.
For years, the district has wrestled with balancing its budget. Most recently, its first interim budget numbers have certified the district as “qualified,” meaning that it isn’t projected to meet its budgetary obligations for the current fiscal year and two years into the future.
As part of its ongoing financial trouble, the district has floated consolidating its school campuses and, along with SCOE, has launched a unification study for west county school districts. School site consolidation talks have been in the works for years, but most recently led to heated discussions from people both for and against consolidation.
As housing costs increase and fires abound, districts in the county and the state have seen declining enrollment. Noe said that the financial troubles of the WSCUHSD have been multi-layered, since more people are moving out of the area due to rising costs, and rentals that tend to be more affordable for families are now being used for vacation rentals.
Less students means less ADA (average daily attendance) funding from the state.
“This is happening all over the county and all over the state, where you just have fewer children that are attending schools. If the state could look at funding our schools a little differently, we would be having a different discussion tonight,” Noe said.
Sukey Robb-Wilder, speaking in opposition of Measure A, said that declining enrollment and the continuous budget deficit of the district can’t be remedied by a parcel tax that’s anticipated to bring in $1.15 million to the district annually, saying that opponents to the measure have called the district’s financial situation a “slowly moving trainwreck.”
In a mid-January update, WSCUHSD Chief Business Official Brian Ogston gave an update on district budget projections based on updated numbers from the governor’s office. Prior to the governor’s proposal, Ogston projected that there would be no COLA funding increases planned for the next two years, predicting the district would run into $1.45 million in deficit spending in the 2021-22 year and $2 million in the 2022-23 year.
With the new adjustment, Ogston predicted a slightly lower deficit spending, with $1 million in the 2021-22 and $1.2 million in 2022-23. During the update, Ogston also presented two other budget scenarios, incorporating a potential 5% drop in enrollment and the anticipated drop in enrollment mixed with lower anticipated cost of living adjustments, both of which increased the district’s deficit spending projections.
“We still remain with a significant structural deficit that I feel should be remedied for the long-term health of the district,” Ogston said during the Jan. 20 WSCUHSD meeting.
The deep structural deficit is why Robb-Wilder said the district needs to cut its costs by ridding itself of its unneeded facilities, rather than going to taxpayers for an additional ballot measure.
“The district now has expensive facilities it no longer needs. Young families have been settling elsewhere and a new tax just raises housing costs more. It’s time to trim surplus facilities and cut expenses,” she said.
“They say they want funding so they can determine the best long-term solution, but they don’t say what solutions they’re considering or how they go about the funding.”
Robb-Wilder said that the district’s measure proposal is too vague and lacks explanation of what long-term planning or solutions the district is looking to use to balance its budget.
“The measure is written broadly and opaquely,” Robb-Wilder said. “We’ve shown faith in the district for years by passing several ballot measures with general wording and promises. The district needs to show us how they’re going to move forward to justify our confidence in them. If they can elaborate and define what a ‘yes’ vote will do before the March vote, only then can voters make a reasonable decision.”
Noe said that the ballot measure is intended to give the district time to think and discuss what long-term solutions it wants to move forward with to make it more fiscally sound.
“This will allow us to create a better plan and a better pathway for students in the west county,” she said.
“One of the challenges is, we’re talking about young children who a year ago when they left for a pandemic and have not returned to their campus, had no idea that that might be forever. They deserve time. They deserve a community dialogue where people can give input and where we can make a thoughtful plan for what the best education solution is for west county,” Noe said, noting that students have experienced increased trauma from the pandemic, fires and floods.
In response, Robb-Wilder said that lack of forward thinking is what got the district in a precarious financial position in the first place.
Answering an audience question about whether or not it makes sense to try to consolidate schools while they’re closed for in-person learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Noe said that the three-year measure in part addresses that.
“In our district, we’ve managed our budget and we’ve kept our quality schools going in an atmosphere that’s been really challenging. I firmly believe we’ve been forward-thinking or else we would be in a way more dire situation than we currently are,” Noe said. “As far as COVID goes, it’s another reason why this funding is so critical and important. We need that space — as students left last year they didn’t realize that maybe they weren’t coming back and also the facilities piece, we don’t know what it’s going to look like when students return … we’re going to need more space, no matter how you look at it.”
In her closing statement, Robb-Wilder doubled down on her opinion that the district needs to consolidate its campuses as a way to try and cut its costs.
“Campuses are expensive and they become a drag on the district and unless the district is able to close them as schools and use them (for) some creative and cost-effective measures, the expense of those schools is dragging the district down,” Robb-Wilder said.
In her closing argument, Noe reaffirmed that the measure would allow the district time to not make a reactionary decision, and that it will allow it time to explore numerous ways to cut costs, including time to explore the west county school district unification study.
This article was produced by Sonoma West Times & News, the hometown newspaper of Sebastopol and west county since 1889. See more news at sonomawest.com