Lawsuit challenging high school consolidation rejected on technical grounds

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, September 28, 2021

WSCUHSD won their day in court when a Sonoma County Superior Court judge knocked down the district's opponents suit because they'd missed the 35-day window to object to the district’s determination that its plan was exempt from CEQA.

The lawsuit against the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) about its means of consolidating Analy and El Molino high schools folded last week, school board officials confirmed.

West county parents organized as the Community Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) filed the suit to contest the merger, alleging the district copped out of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to make it happen.

The Sonoma County Superior Court judge knocked down the suit because CARE missed the 35-day window to object to the district’s determination that its plan was exempt from CEQA, according to the school board’s vice president, Jeanne Fernandes.

There are no legal challenges regarding consolidation at the moment, a refreshing experience for the district, Fernandes said. “We followed the letter of the law,” she said. “It’s done. It’s over.”

The judge tentatively ruled in the district’s favor the day before the hearing set for Sept. 22, finding a lack of evidence behind CARE’s claims, she said. CARE turned down the chance to present new arguments at the hearing, allowing the ruling to finalize before the parties entered court, said CARE member Jessalee Mills.

“Based on the fact that we didn’t have anything additional to argue, we thought that it would be money better spent not wasting our attorney’s time and our money on the hearing, so we opted to forgo the hearing and then the tentative ruling becomes the official ruling,” Mills said. “It would’ve been a waste of everybody’s time and money at that point.”

Dollars and directions to consider

According to Mills, CARE’s main goal became “just to preserve the record if there’s anything new to add for the appellate purpose, if we decide to go that route.”

Appealing to a district court would cost everyone more money, Fernandes said, which she wanted the public to understand.

“We actually don’t know yet exactly how much this cost the school district, but I’m going to tell you it was a huge waste of money because we knew we followed the law,” she said. The CEQA lawsuit also cost the district “probably hundreds of hours” in staff time gathering information for the district’s attorney, according to Fernandes, who said the district was working to find those numbers to demonstrate the “inordinate” expense.

So far, the lawsuit cost CARE an estimated $130,000, Mills said, and the team received a rough estimate of $50,000 to $70,000 if they advanced to a district court. She said she believes CARE would’ve had “a pretty good chance” if they choose that direction.

In a message to SoCoNews Friday, Sept. 24, CARE co-founder Gillian Hayes stated most CEQA decisions are determined in appeals court, forming case law, and that the organization would be meeting that weekend to consider its next move. Hayes said she was personally inclined toward appealing to a higher-level court that “gets the eyes on the cases that have no local ties as our local superior court often does.”

The ultimate goal of CARE now is to separate Analy High School and El Molino High School into separate districts, according to Mills. Once the west county district unification study is complete in a year or so, she said CARE is considering hiring a consultant to analyze emerging data to see how feasibly El Molino and Analy could separately join with their own nearby feeder schools.

“It’s not even sentimental for me, to be honest with you, it’s just the whole process is so flawed right now and they’re all Sebastopol-based individuals making decisions, major decisions to save electives at the cost of this detrimental impact to these far west county kids and essentially deny them access to education,” Mills said.

Still, the El Molino alumna said splitting the Forestville school into its own district and splitting off to join with another district are two very different processes. “And they’re both convoluted. I don’t get the whole thing, to be honest with you, but going through splitting off and joining a school district is even more convoluted. What our game plan is right now is just to split them apart and then consider joining once we have a separate district,” she said.

Mills shared that she could see El Molino becoming a basic aid school, a model retired teacher Steve Griffith mentioned during a public interview as a candidate for a recent board trustee appointment.

More district politics

CARE does not involve itself in political processes, like the recently failed recall efforts, Mills said, but those in the recall committee are already discussing whether to pursue a special election to challenge the provisional appointment of Patrick Nagle as a trustee.

The Sebastopol resident’s appointment to fill Laurie Fadave’s vacancy was disappointing, Mills said. Nagle grew up by the coast in Sea Ranch so far northwest it’s nearly an hour’s drive north of Jenner, but that appears to be outsized by the other contenders’ experience in west county.

He lives in Sebastopol now, but retired teacher and negotiator Bill Olzman taught at El Molino and fellow retired teacher Steve Griffith lives in Forestville and continues his history of school community involvement.

“The district’s moving to by-trustee-area elections because we requested it, because they’ll get sued if they don’t. And they’ll lose,” Mills said. “But, you would think that because that’s happening, they would at least pick somebody with west county’s interest in mind.”

Fernandes said those who want to oust Nagle because he lives in Sebastopol could gather the signatures to compel an election in March, but the provisional appointee would only serve from April to November 2022 when the seat would be up for grabs anyway. It would cost the district probably around $100,000 more, she said.

The vice board president said the challengers tried to persuade the district numerous times that they would cancel the lawsuit if the district changed its stance.

“There was a lot of bullying going on and I don’t use that word frivolously, but there was a lot of nastiness and it was kind of sad, it’s kind of hard to have to deal with,” Fernandes said, adding the district knew it had good lawyers and followed the law. “And for them to waste the community’s money that they raised on this seems very frivolous, and for them to have us spend money on a lawyer was extremely frivolous.”

Fernandes said that the lawsuit could be paid for with bond money and not the general fund, being related to CEQA, but it still took away funds for projects like fixing its facilities and buildings that would benefit students.

“Once the recall was decided and this now has been put to bed as well, at least for the moment, we can now get back to doing the business of this school district without all of this other stuff looming over our heads,” Fernandes said.

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