Lawsuit filed against WSCUHSD over closure of El Molino High School

By Camille Escovedo, Staff Writer, Sonoma West Times & News, April 23, 2021

Members of the West Sonoma County Union High School District community marched on April 8 to urge district trustees to revote against consolidating El Molino and Analy high schools. (Photo by Camille Escovedo)

The Community Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) has filed a lawsuit against the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) with the Sonoma County Superior Court over the board’s March 10 vote to consolidate Analy High School and El Molino High School into one school, or “close El Molino High School,” according to a press release sent to Sonoma West Times & News Thursday afternoon, April 22.

The court was still processing the filing as of mid-afternoon Thursday, according to El Molino parent and Forestville resident Gillian Hayes, a CARE founder who also serves as vice president of El Molino Boosters and of the Forestville School Education Foundation.

Superintendent Toni Beal said the district has yet to be served this lawsuit and cannot comment until that happens.

The press release states the lawsuit contests the board’s vote and what it described as “a series of missteps the District made leading up to the vote in violation of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).”

Attorney Scott A. Lewis, from the Santa Rosa law firm Perry, Johnson, Anderson, Miller & Moskowitz, LLP, declared the lawsuit filing for CARE, according to the statement.

The statement continues on to list the disputed actions starting with the district’s move to obtain a CEQA exemption about potential consolidation before the March 10 vote occurred and the district’s lack of an environmental review, alleging also that Beal gave “contradicting information on school and student enrollment capacities” at public meetings.

The press release also claims the board held dialogues before the March 10 vote to close El Molino, “discussions that included significant, long-term investments of up to $195 million to create a ‘superschool,'” at Analy’s Sebastopol campus, “with potential future expansion through the acquisition of adjacent parcels to the existing campus,” though the statement did not provide further detail on when, where or how these conversations took place or what the $195 million investments were.

The lawsuit also states that American Rescue Plan and CARES Act funding and state and stimulus funding related to COVID-19 that contain some unrestricted monies are headed to the district.

Hayes asserts the stimulus monies coming after the vote could prevent or delay the merger, though the board of trustees had already approved the consolidation by the time former chief business official Jeff Ogston delivered the presentation of that state and federal funding on March 30.

“Earlier on, the superintendent made clear through a board resolution and promise to our community that if $750,000 or more in new funding was identified, the district and school board would revisit the topic of school consolidation and closure,” Hayes states. “Since that statement and following their March 30 meeting, after millions in new funding has been identified with disbursements beginning in May and August 2021, the district and board have been virtually silent on the use of these funds, beyond vague references that indicate they’re standing by their deeply-flawed previous decisions despite the opportunity to use stimulus funding to stop or even slow down the consolidation process.”

According to the resolution passed on Nov. 30, the board would delay consolidation if both or either Measure A or Measure B passed in the March 2 election and that “the Governing Board reserves the right to proceed with school consolidation at an earlier date should the district experience a significant change in revenues or expenses,” stated as “financial conditions resulting in a negative impact on the district’s year end general fund balance of $750,000 or more.”

The Nov. 30 resolution states, “the consolidation timelines set forth herein may also be delayed in the event that the district’s financial condition substantially improves. A substantial improvement in the district’s financial condition would be a net increase in the district’s year end general fund balance of at least $750,000.”

Both Measure A and Measure B were defeated in the March 2 election without the two-thirds majority vote, despite capturing a smaller majority.

In an April 7 interview, Superintendent Toni Beal said the state and federal funds are required to go toward COVID-19-related expenses and learning loss incurred over the past year of distance-learning.

In response to whether the state and federal funds could count toward the $750,000 condition in a November resolution, Beal said it’s the general fund that keeps the El Molino campus running and that the majority of incoming funds will not flow into the general fund because they are restricted to a list of allowable uses, unlike unrestricted funding the district could use as it chooses.

“In addition, AB86, you must develop a plan for spending those funds and that plan has to be approved by the board, and if you do not use the funds for the items that are specified in the plan, the funds are taken back,” Beal said in her April 7 interview.

“You’re penalized for the amount that you use for any items that are not on the acceptable use list,” she said. According to the superintendent, the district’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) allocation is reduced in the following year by the amount of money spent for purposes other than what the plan covers, encompassed in AB86’s allowable uses.

As for the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Fund, or ESSER money, Beal said the list of allowable uses is little longer than AB86 but ultimately still pertains to COVID-19-related costs or learning loss stemming from the circumstances of the pandemic.

According to the superintendent, the COVID-19 relief funds are for services in addition to the regular programming, rather than those existing services themselves.

The press release concludes by adding that in 2018, district’s voters passed a $91 million bond for Analy, El Molino and Laguna, “fueling speculation about the district’s plans to invest the remaining funds into the Analy High School ‘superschool campus’ that has not yet been analyzed in compliance with CEQA.”

Moreover, the CARE statement said that a combined student population of close to 1,700 students would head to the Sebastopol campus in the coming school year with many of the 550-plus El Molino students, away from the Forestville site “in an unincorporated rural community whose local businesses depend on the continued presence of 500+ students and families frequenting the area during school and extracurricular activities.”

Jessalee Mills, another regular school board attendee, a CARE founder and lawyer who lives in Forestville, is quoted as saying that, “we are confident that the misguided direction that the district superintendent has led the school board down will shed light on the truly disastrous decision-making process that got us to this point.”

She added that recall campaigns are in motion against the three board members who voted to approve the consolidation and that “their total lack of leadership and ability to listen to the resounding calls to keep El Molino open has unnecessarily divided the community.”

Board President Kellie Noe said she could not comment on the lawsuit because the district has yet to be served. “All I can do is say that the district is very confident that we complied with all laws and requirements, and this includes CEQA,” she said.

“Our district is working really diligently to put a lot of pieces in place for next year,” she said, including using both campuses for comprehensive classes and possibly career technical education, culinary, arts and other classes at the Forestville campus.

“Our goal is to work together, turn towards unity and really work to the best of our ability to make this a great experience for all the kids next year, as good as it can be, acknowledging that we’ve gone through some pretty severe and traumatic experiences for closing a school,” she said.

The March 10 vote itself was to uphold Resolution #11, passed on Nov. 30, which aspired to be a placeholder plan to merge the schools in the 2021-22 year if neither Measure A for a district parcel tax nor Measure B for an added transient occupancy tax on west county lodging passed in the March 2 election.

This consolidation plan relocates Laguna High School students and the district office to the El Molino campus while El Molino students are redirected to the Analy campus as part of the district’s fiscal recovery plan to address the structural deficit, originally projected at roughly $2 million for the 2022-23 year.

Beal said this arrangement could qualify as categorically exempt from a full CEQA study, which would allow the district to demonstrate budget reductions in its fiscal recovery plan due to SCOE and prevent massive preliminary layoffs in March to occur absent of any other board-approved budget changes, Sonoma West Times & News reported in November.

That move sought to buy time to see whether Measure A and Measure B would secure bridge-funding to delay a consolidation decision.

 This is a developing story. Please check in soon for further reporting.

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