Long-awaited West County School District Reorganization Study arrives
By Dale Doherty, Sebastopol Times, June 30, 2022
Is it economically feasible to consolidate the 11 school districts of West Sonoma County into one or two districts? That was the subject of a meeting at West County High School’s auditorium on Tuesday, June 28th. The question, which had been raised by the board of West County Union High School District, resulted in a financial feasibility study by consultants hired by the Sonoma County Office of Education. Dr. Steven Herrington, the Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools, presented the study as the first step in a long process that might take 3-5 years and require the approvals of the affected districts, the State Board of Education and voters.
About 25 people were in the audience for the meeting, which was also livestreamed (see link at bottom).
Dr. Herrington began by saying that even asking this question was unprecedented in the state. He could not cite other recent examples of consolidation as models. The 40 districts in Sonoma County are a lot, given the size of the population and the geographic area of the county. He compared it to 80 districts in Los Angeles and 45 districts in San Diego. “There were once as many as 163 school districts in Sonoma County,” he said, referring to an 1897 map he found. A wave of school consolidation occurred in the 1950’s but not much has happened since then. Finding consultants to evaluate the question was a challenge because this work had not been done before.
The 11 school districts* that were part of this study serve 6,000 students. Dr. Herrington said that this question of consolidation was worth considering because of several concerns:
- School enrollment has been declining 16.2 percent over the last four years in Sonoma County, the third largest decline by county in the state (behind Los Angeles and Ventura counties).
- West County Union High School District has a structural deficit of $2M annually.
- The merger of Analy and El Molino to cut costs had already been done.
One big reason for consolidating school districts is cost savings. Dr. Herrington said that ultimately the future decision should be made based on what best serves students. However, the first thing that has to be determined is whether the budget numbers will be favorable for the newly created district. “By law, consolidation cannot have a negative impact,” he said.
He presented three different scenarios for consolidation. Before he could explain those scenarios, we had to understand the two different school funding sources for districts.
A community-funded district or basic aid is one where local property taxes exceed a state-mandated spending level required per pupil. The other source is state aid, or Local Control Funding Formula, in which money comes from the state to meet the spending level requirement. The different sources will end up deciding what kind of consolidation is possible because a new consolidated district would be able to use only one type of funding source, and not mix both sources.
The first scenario for consolidation was the most obvious one — combining all 10 feeder schools for West County High School with the High School district. One of the feeder districts, Twin Hills, and the West County Union High School District get their funding from the Local Control Funding Formula, and the other 8 districts get it from basic aid. The consolidated district would lose $14M in funding that it currently enjoys. So, even with a projected cost savings of $5M, the new all-in-one district would need some other way of making up $9M. Thus, the first scenario was seen as the most financially challenging.
The second scenario for consolidation looked at two separate districts, one centered in Sebastopol and the other in Russian River Valley. It presumed there would have to be a second high school, such as El Molino, but the consultant did not figure it into the costs. The problem that led to the merging of El Molino and Analy would resurface as 22% of the area’s students are in the Russian River Valley and 78% are in Sebastopol and West County.
The financial impact of the split was better than the first scenario. The Russian River consolidated district would lose $1.7M in funding, but gain $3-5M in cost savings. The West County consolidated district would lose $4.2M but also might expect a similar amount in cost savings.
The differences in local and state funding sources led to the creation of a third scenario, which Dr. Herrington said he added. It doesn’t follow any particular geography. This type of consolidation he referred to as “Thompson-style Unification” and was once applied when the Windsor school system separated from Healdsburg.
Under this scenario, Twin Hills School District and West County Union High School District would become a single consolidated district because both rely on state aid (LCFF). All nine remaining districts would opt-out of the Twin Hills-West County and be “unionized” or merged to preserve their local funding sources. Under this scenario, $7M in cost savings could be realized.
Dr. Herrington said that cost savings are there in all scenarios but there is also loss of revenue in the first two scenarios. Board Member Jeanne Fernandes raised the question about parcel taxes; would that funding transfer to the consolidated district or require a costly re-authorization by voters?
Dr Herrington closed by saying that the next step was for the board of WSCUHS District to decide if it wants to move forward and then choose a scenario on which additional research would be done. Board President Patrick Nagle said that the board would discuss this question at its August board meeting.
The WSCHS District School Board, which initiated this study, can keep the study moving forward but the final decision on consolidation will not happen quickly nor by any single district. Even if plans for consolidation prove too much of a challenge, the declining enrollment and structural deficit for the high school as well as other problems in its feeder districts will persist.
I’ve tried to recap the meeting but the following links provide a much fuller picture.
Video of June 28th meeting (YouTube)
Financial Feasibility Study (PDF)
*The area districts involved in this study were:
West Sonoma County Union High School District
Fort Ross Elementary School District
Montgomery Elementary School District
Monte Rio Elementary School District
Guerneville Elementary School District
Forestville Elementary School District
Harmony Elementary School District
Oak Grove Elementary School District
Sebastopol Elementary School District
Twin Hills Elementary School District
Gravenstein Elementary School District