PRIMARY SOURCES: A tale of two letters

, , April 10, 2021

The West Sonoma County Union High School District sent the following letter to several news organizations and its feeder school districts, explaining the reasons it decided to consolidate Analy and El Molino high schools. A group opposed to the consolidation, the Community Alliance for Responsible Rural Education, wrote a detailed letter in response. Here are their two letters:

FROM THE WSCUHSD BOARD, dated April 6

To the WSCUHSD Community,

The West Sonoma County Union High School District has heard our community’s concerns regarding the merging of our two high school campuses, and we realize this is very difficult for everyone. We want you to know we are not closing any of our campuses; we will be utilizing them all to some extent next school year and plan for much more use in years to come. We have no plans to erase history, remove statues, murals, or bricks from any campus. There are no plans or discussions regarding the sale of our district property at this time.

Our goal is to preserve all of the history from our schools and our district. While the district had to make a very difficult decision, we did it with the best intentions for all our current students and future students. We want all of our students to have access to high quality education. The Board studied a list of potential cuts in public meetings that included programs, sports, and services to students.  If the Board of Trustees did not make this difficult decision, these programs and services would have been eliminated.

Budget Concerns

Our budget reality cannot be ignored. We have a large structural deficit and have had a structural deficit for over a decade – meaning we have a chronic problem of spending more than we receive from what the state allocates. In household terms, we are spending more than we make. No one runs their home or business this way or not for very long – bankruptcy will eventually take hold. That is exactly what will happen if we do not get this downward deficit spiral under control. The school district needs to make substantial changes in how we do business and how we proceed into the future in order to maintain quality programs, sports and services for our students. Currently we need to cut our expenses by $1.2 million.  The harsh reality is that we had 2 options:

1) severely cut student programming, such as music, dance, theatre, art, and even AP classes, along with our very special West County sports programs; or

2) cut our operational expenses. We chose to prioritize services and programs for our 1,600 students.

That said, we realized the option to merge campuses would be very controversial and unsettling for many in our community. Before we arrived at this decision to merge campuses, the board carefully examined program cuts, because we knew merging high schools would not be an easy decision for our community.

The District considered:

  • Cut back to a FULL Six period day – $600,000 cuts (30 elective teachers = 93 elective sections) Examples of programs lost:  Music, AP Music Theory, Instrumental Music, Art Studio, Digital Photography, Yearbook, Farm to Table, Woodshop, Stagecraft, Leadership, AP Psychology, Spanish 2, 3, 4/Honors, Treble Choir, Dance, Media Production, Digital Filmmaking, Advanced Sustained Agriculture, Band, AP Environmental Science, Chemistry Honors, Chemistry Agricultural Science, AP Political Science
  • Make Administrative Reductions – $150,000 cuts
  • Move Laguna and the District Office to the El Molino Campus – $220,000 cuts (Administrative, Classified and Counseling Staffing Reductions)
  • Sports – $330,000 reductions – Approximately 750 students affected.  Examples of sports lost – Frosh, JV, Varsity: Football, basketball, Mountain Biking, Volleyball, Wrestling, Track and Field, Cross Country, Badminton, Tennis, Soccer.

We chose instead to prioritize services and programs to all our students and cut our operational expenses.When we could see that campus consolidation was likely inevitable in order to balance our budget, we went to the voters with Measure A (and B), and it was not supported.  We hear your loud voices pleading to keep the school open, but the broader community said, “No new taxes.”  So, here we are, caught between reducing operational costs to run facilities or reducing courses, electives and sports for our students.  Even anticipating your anger, we made a decision that favors our students, today and tomorrow.

New District Culture: Unity

The District is beginning the process of creating a campus culture and identity that is shared by all students. No decisions have been made at this time regarding names, mascots, colors or any of these details, because we want the students and the community to inform this work. The District has also confirmed with the NCAA and the University of California and California State University systems that the school merger will not impact the student’s ability to play college sports or impact college entry. We realize that everyone in our school communities has a love for their school and we realize this is difficult for everyone. We have no intention of erasing history at either campus, nor do we have plans to sell any district property at this time. We want a climate and culture that is welcoming for all students and staff, and our plan is to welcome students in the Fall of 2021 with a new school model. We want the student and community voices to be heard, considered and help guide this work.

The Unity Committee and the District Board of Trustees are working towards a shared vision that will put students at the center. We appreciate the dedication our parents and community have for our schools. We hope our community will join us as we turn towards unity and build a new model for the education of our West Sonoma County Union High School District and for our students.

Sincerely,
The WSCUHSD Board of Trustees

 

LETTER IN RESPONSE FROM THE COMMUNITY ALLIANCE FOR RESPONSIBLE RURAL EDUCATION, dated April 9, 2021

Dear West Sonoma County Union High School Board, District Feeder School Boards, Superintendents, Community Members and Beloved Students:

We are writing in response to the letter sent out to the community on April 6th by the West Sonoma County Union High School District addressing justification for consolidation of our three High Schools. We stand in solidarity against the board majority consolidation vote in the 21-22 school year.

School Consolidation Process
The District should have allowed at least 18 months for this process as identified in the California Department of Education Best Practices Guide. This would have allowed for meaningful community involvement in the process of closing El Molino, and consolidating the students with Analy, as many other California school districts have done when faced with similar situations. The Guide makes two profound statements about school closures:

“Gather the facts. The decision to close a school must be based upon hard, empirical evidence that leads to a broadly supported, incontrovertible conclusion-the district cannot afford to keep a particular school(s) open without cuts elsewhere (budget, staffing, etc.).”

“Form a committee to gather the facts. It is a legislative intent, but not a mandate, for a district to have and use a District Advisory Committee (DAC) “before decisions are made about school closure” (Education Code Section 17387).”

The committee recommended by the State Guide would have included community members, students, parents, teachers’ unions, staff, as well as subject matter experts in order to aggressively explore all options, in an equitable, equal, balanced, fair, and open process. Given sufficient time, the committee could have explored options including program changes, the appropriate campus to consolidate to- should it be deemed necessary, and even the possibility of reorganizing the District into two separate high school districts in order to keep both schools open. The District failed to follow this State Guide and therefore has rushed the process and acted with impropriety making this decision.

In addition to their failure to follow the State Guide, the majority of the Board has voted to move forward with consolidation while the Sonoma County Office of Education is in the process of conducting a unification feasibility study at the District’s request. This study is anticipated to be completed in July 2022.

Budget Concerns
We understand the WSCUHSD is in a structural deficit and that they have been experiencing financial strain for several years. We do not agree that the one month from October 2020- November 2020 was sufficient time to explore alternatives to consolidation or to determine with finality which campus is most ideal moving forward.

We have been told that it’s time to quit using one-time funds to save El Molino and that we should just “rip the band-aid off.” We think this is the perfect time to use the one-time funding available, due to COVID 19 relief, to take the band-aid off slowly and with great care for the patient, i.e., our current and future students. This is the perfect time to use one-time funds to provide the time we need to explore options over the next two years, establish a plan based on empirical evidence and developed by the entire WSUHSD Community, not just the Superintendent and the Board majority, who all live within the Analy High School Area. In fact, the resolution passed by the Board in November 2020 for consolidation stated that either the tax measures needed to pass or an increase of $750,000 to the general fund ending balance needed to be present to delay consolidation. At that time of the resolution, the Board faced insolvency in 2022 but that issue does not exist in the March 10 budget report on options for the Fiscal Recovery Plan. Although the taxes did not pass, the District’s budget is increasing much more than the stated required $750,000. That increase in funding is exactly purposed to avoid making such drastic and painful changes during this COVID era.

Allowable usage for a portion of this funding states:

Funds may be used for “(R) Other activities that are necessary to maintain the operation of and continuity of services in local educational agencies and continuing to employ existing staff of the local educational agency.”

The District claims they considered all options carefully and funding was simply not available once the tax measures failed. Yet here is the breakdown of funding coming in from State and Federal sources on May 21, 2021. (Some have no restrictions on use).

West Sonoma County Union High School District

CARES Act: Federal 3/27/2020 $146,120

CARES Act: State 3/27/2020 $1,033,710

$900B Covid Relief Bill: 12/27/2020 $473,050

Est. Rescue Plan: Federal 3/11/2021 $1,051,780

Total monies to our district: $2,704,660

  • 6 Period Day-The letter from the District mentions this option would result in cutting 30 teachers and 93 elective sections. Yet, on the recorded March 10th meeting, the CBO stated with consolidation, 9 teachers would be cut and 45 sections lost and with the 6 period day, 11 teachers would be cut and 56 sections lost. Let’s keep our facts straight, the budget impact is between 9-11 teachers in either case. And to further clarify, 9 of the 25 sections under consideration to be cut in the district letter are not currently offered at El Molino High School. An optional 7 period day saves $300,000, which should also be considered.
  • Admin Reductions-$150,000
  • Laguna and District Offices to Elmo Campus-$220,000 in savings leaving Elmo in its place and joining with Laguna and DO on Elmo campus.
  • Sports-The letter also states cutting sports teams would affect 750 students. But the reality is sports team participation is cut in half by this consolidation as students will no longer have the opportunity to play on a smaller team. The 556 El Molino students will be up against the 1100 Analy students for the same number of positions available which already cuts sports opportunities.

Equity in Access to Education
The majority of the Board claims that they “chose instead to prioritize services and programs to all of our students and cut our operational expenses.” How is this true when the programs and services for the under-represented students in the far west county will be much less accessible and participation in activities severely limited in this bigger school so far from home? This choice was made for the Analy students, without consideration of the effect on the El Molino families. And what operational expenses are they saving when they started their letter admitting they are keeping all of the campuses open? The operational expenses saved are minimal at best.

We can exhaustively enumerate and dispute the skewed numbers and untrue statements given by the District in this recent communication. But the bottom line is, there is funding available to give the time and opportunity to come up with the best, equitable and effective solutions for the budget crisis in the District. We have to ask ourselves, why are they rushing? Why are they so determined to do such a sloppy job at this? The feasible answer has to be that they do not want to give the El Molino community an opportunity to find a way to stand on their own as a viable far West County district, as currently being examined in the Sonoma County Office of Education’s Unification Study. They want the ADA funding from our students, and they want the 65% tax revenue we bring them and they want the Infrastructure bond money solely for the Analy campus. They are using our students and they are using our campus for Analy programs and Laguna’s growth at the detriment of students in the far West County, who would have increased barriers to access to a comprehensive high school with this consolidation. This is inequitable, unethical, and must be stopped.

As parents, grandparents, students, alumni, past teachers, past administrators and just civic- minded people we will continue to explore every remedy, legal, political and otherwise, to delay this action until sufficient time has been given to adequately and fairly come to a conclusion that works equally for El Molino, Analy and Laguna students and their respective communities. A decision based upon hard, empirical evidence that leads to a broadly supported, incontrovertible conclusion.

Unity
The definition of Unity is: Being united; combined into one; absence of diversity; unvaried or uniform character; oneness of mind. This is the purported goal of the administration and the majority of the Board. There is insufficient time to develop a plan in five months from March 2021 to August 2021 to include team building, busing, curriculum, college transfer requirements, NCAA eligibility, rebranding, etc. It is also the wrong time to attempt to consolidate campuses during a pandemic. The process was rushed because the majority of the Board chose to make it rushed. The El Molino Community was overlooked even though El Molino students comprise 33% of the district total enrollment while the El Molino Community pays 65% of the district’s tax revenue and bond debt. If true Unity is a goal in this process, then a professional team building consultant should have been hired to work with our students over a thoughtful time frame. Students’ first engagement started today, April 9, 2021. The last day of school is June 3, 2021. Does the District think they can collaborate effectively with students in 7 weeks time?

How to Get Involved
Our parent group has swiftly formed committees and tasks to stop the consolidation. We ask for your support and involvement in our cause to provide equity in access to education for our deep West County students. Here are some ways to get involved:

1. Sign the Recall Petition- A recall petition has been served to the three members that voted to consolidate our schools. Kellie Noe, Jeanne Fernandes, and Laurie FaDave should all either change their vote or step down from their positions. Find the recall petition next week on the Keep the Lions Roaring Facebook page.

2. Saveelmo.com- Join the website, donate, get involved in protests, events and more.

3. Facebook- Join the Keep the Lions Roaring page for up to date committees to volunteer on, sign the recall, hear about activities to participate in, and board meeting updates.

4. District Unification- In concert with the Sonoma County Office of Education Unification Study, the Lions group is working on moving the unification process forward more swiftly. If your board/district is interested in studying the option of unifying with El Molino please reach out to Dan Northern or Gaylynne Sword to get involved. High level analysis shows unification of even one district could be financially sustainable to keep El Molino open without a large admin cut from either school.
Thank you for taking the time to read.

Sincerely,

The Community Alliance for Responsible Rural Education (CAR2E)

CARE Board: Max Broome, Jessalee Mills, Peter Trombetta, Josh Nultemeier, Dan Northern, Clay Thistle, Jeanne Chernila, Gillian Hayes
Community Members at Large: Gaylynne Sword