What’s the basis of El Mo supporters’ lawsuit against WSCUHSD?

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, April 26, 2021

el mo protest

El Mo supporters took their protest against consolidation to Sebastopol in a large demonstration on April 8 and a smaller one on April 24. More protests are planned. (Photo by Ceylan Crow)

The Community Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) announced its lawsuit against the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) on April 22, alleging the district violated the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to pave the way for the March 10 vote to consolidate El Molino and Analy high schools.

El Molino parent Gillian Hayes, one of CARE’s founders, said the group now awaits a court date to move forward, represented by Santa Rosa law firm Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz, LLP. The CARE group itself also contains three attorneys, including co-founder Jessalee Mills, Hayes said.

“Our purpose here is to really bring them to the negotiating table, to talk to us about a better long-term solution. We’ve tried to meet with them, we’ve tried to voice our concerns. We have unresponsiveness,” she said, resorting to legal action to demonstrate transgressions she said were dismissed by Superintendent Toni Beal.

“And in filing this lawsuit and the California Environmental Quality Act violations, we’re hoping that the judge requests that they redo their environmental analysis, redo their vote for consolidation and then think about it in a more thoughtful way,” Hayes said.

CARE calls on the Sonoma Superior Court to dismiss what it describes as the district’s decisions to approve El Molino High School’s closure and consolidation in its current plan and invalidate its decision-making regarding CEQA and other actions leading to the final vote, according to the legal petition filed with the Sonoma Superior Court on April 21.

Specifically, the petition asks the court to negate the district’s determination that the consolidation is exempt from CEQA and the approval of filing and recording a Notice of Exemption in Resolution #10 last November “which purported to finally approve the consolidation, but which was actually an interim approval.”

Through attorneys from Santa Rosa law firm Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz, LLP, CARE legally challenges “all associated determinations made on or about November 30, 2020” and the ultimate March 10 decision approving the consolidation and its timeline, the petition said.

According to the petition, the district breached CEQA provisions by filing for an exemption before the project was finally authorized. The document alleges that the district filed for the exemption not only lacking “adequate notice and the opportunity to object,” and evidence, but “fabricating and inflating original capacity numbers” to qualify.

Further, the petition maintains that the consolidation project is still on the hook for CEQA and that it snags on the “cumulative impact” and “significant effect” exceptions to the categorical exemption, listed as CEQA Guidelines § 15300.2(b) and § 15300.2(c)

A message from Gillian Hayes, a CARE group founder

When asked about the possibility legal action may further damage the district’s financial ability to provide for students, Hayes said the district’s potential losses are the price it pays for not heeding community members like herself telling them about their risks and missteps last October, when the consolidation conversation arose.

“They could have saved months. Time is money. They could have saved themselves that time and money by going about this process in the correct fashion and they chose not to,” she said. As interim deputy city manager of Vallejo, Hayes said she frequently works with CEQA law and guidelines regarding development proposals and said she does not believe Beal has her level of experience or knowledge.

Hayes said the district refused to recognize mistakes or collaborate with community members in October on “a more thoughtful process” aligning with state guidelines on school closure and consolidation. She said those guidelines recommend an 18-month process the district sought to achieve in fourth months, questioning if the shift was necessary in the first place.

“We now are left with our only remedy to sue them to force, hopefully, some sort of negotiation,” Hayes said. “I hope that the district is smart, and they get some legal counsel that can advise them that it’s better to just work with the community and settle rather than just push it all the way through to the end of court.”

Hayes said the CARE group has spent $10,000 on the legal retainer so far, though the full cost of taking the consolidation decision to court is yet to be determined.

According to Hayes, the superintendent and district administration wrongfully insist the incoming state and federal funds are intended to address COVID-19 impacts only, alleging they interpret as such to avoid acting by the November resolution that said they could delay consolidation if the district experienced a net increase of $750,000 in its year-end general fund balance.

“Really, the focus is on retaining small class sizes and that’s how you’re able to use it to continue the education at El Molino and not consolidate into one high school with larger classroom sizes,” she said.

A last call before filing suit

Before the WSCUHSD board entered closed session on April 14 to consult legal counsel on anticipated litigation, Hayes and Mills spoke during public comment on a meeting attended by the two parents, Superintendent Toni Beal, Board President Kellie Noe and County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins on April 12.

In an April 22 interview, Hopkins said she initiated this meeting to facilitate a dialogue between Hayes, Mills, Noe and Beal to seek a compromise that would avoid potential legal action. In a separate April 23 interview, Noe confirmed this meeting occurred over Zoom.

Hopkins said community members thought the district could use some COVID-19 relief funds to delay consolidation and allow time to explore other paths and prevent more trauma facing students who had already gone through fires, floods and a pandemic.

The 5th District supervisor said she herself has recently inquired into Congressman Jared Huffman’s, D-San Rafael, office about whether federal funding headed to the district can be used for what community members are suggesting.

During the April 14 public comment, Hayes said she outlined one or two of five “potential litigation opportunities.”

“I’d much rather spend my money, and our money from the lion’s group on the kids,” she said, clarifying on April 23 that the lion’s group is the CARE team and anyone that wants to keep El Molino, home of the lions, open.

“If we could come to some negotiation and some agreement to slow this process and make it more thoughtful, I’ll give you the 75-grand and you can use it to save a three-quarters of a teacher. If you continue to dig your heels in and push forward with this consolidation that is not only illegal for many reasons but is just not right for our students, then we have no other choice,” she said, a week before the petition was filed with the Sonoma County Superior Court.

Hopkins and Hayes said the district’s side did not demonstrate much meaningful listening during the April 12 meeting. Board president Kellie Noe said she and the superintendent were cordial and open to listening at the meeting held over Zoom.

“They expressed their concerns. I was clear with them I am one board member, so it was really a listening session to hear their concerns and the next step was really to talk with our legal team,” she said. “We didn’t really have much feedback on what they were saying given the nature of the meeting and I am one board member, but I definitely wouldn’t define it as stonewalled.”

Noe said the district received the writ document on Friday, April 23.

“We’ve only had a few hours to review it, but I can make a statement at this point just to clarify that the district did comply with all CEQA requirements,” she said. The public had been informed that the district would file for a notice of exemption, Noe said.

The board president said the trustees passed a resolution that approved the consolidation plan at its Nov. 30 board meeting in open session and that the March 10 vote reaffirmed that plan and its inclusion into the district’s fiscal recovery plan.

The consolidation project was officially declared in Resolution #10 that also determined the project was categorically exempt from CEQA at the Nov. 30 meeting, Noe said.

Resolution #10 defines the consolidation project as moving El Molino students, staff and faculty onto the Analy and Laguna campus and Laguna students, faculty and staff to the El Molino campus, according to the document linked on the Nov. 30 school board meeting agenda.

Resolution #11, approved at the same meeting, is titled to address the intention and timeline of the consolidation “And Relocation of District High Schools and District Office,” according the Nov. 30 agenda.

Noe said, “Lastly, I think we’re disappointed that the individuals felt they needed to do this and we believe this lawsuit is both frivolous and not filed timely.”

Sonoma West Times & News reported in early April that Hayes said the El Molino Boosters had a special separate fund called the “Save El Molino Fund.”

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