Year in Review: Schools

Compiled by Camille Escovedo, with reporting by Camille Escovedo, Katherine Minkiewicz-Martine and Elsa Cavazos, SoCoNews, December 29, 2021

school protest

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

2021 was another momentous year for west county schools under the pandemic. The year grew especially top-heavy for the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) striving for stability as consolidation rocked the community.

In January, some of the high school district’s most vocal community members sent a letter to Superintendent Toni Beal saying they believed the district’s at-large trustee election does not meet the intent of the California Voting Rights Act of 2001 (CVRA).

According to Beal, the district’s legal team found the letter essentially served as a legal threat that triggered a timeline where the district had only 45 days of protection from lawsuits to act on the alleged CVRA violation. Signatories requested the letter be rescinded, but it was too late.

The Jan. 8 letter said the district needed to replace its at-large trustee election method with a by-trustee-area method and possibly increase seats on the board to ward off future legal action and improve representation.

Beal told SoCoNews on Jan. 22 that the ensuing process could cost the district nearly $70,000 for a demographic study, its associated legal fees and legal services to address the original “threat” of lawsuit. The study’s cost would require the district to cut more from its 2022-23 school year budget, she said.

Meanwhile, the district struggled in the grip of its structural deficit. Beal reported at the Jan. 20 board meeting that WSCUHSD got its letter from the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) finding the district’s status to be qualified — as in, potentially unable to afford its financial obligations in the current or two subsequent fiscal years.

This meant the district needed to submit its second interim budget report with a fiscal recovery plan showing how WSCUHSD would maintain minimum reserves and handle its deficit spending. The superintendent’s budget committee would reconvene, Beal said.

Then-Chief Business Official Jeff Ogston calculated budget scenarios depending on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal and “a more conservative projection” from education consulting company Schools Services of California, Inc. He found the district may need to identify budget cuts for 2022-23 as low as $600,000 or as high as roughly $1.7 million.

That same January meeting, trustees unanimously approved courses in statistics for life, sustainable living, construction and web development to be offered at the continuation high school as early as fall 2021.

In February, the board of trustees opted for more flexible graduation requirements by approving a variance, or difference, in credits needed to graduate for specific seniors persevering through immense challenges at Analy High School and El Molino High School.

Administrators across the county came together months before to discuss tanking grades, obstacles and traumas students were facing in the distance learning that could jeopardize their graduation.

That month, the board voted to shift to a by-trustee area election system and seek a waiver of a community vote to get the system in place for the 2022 board election. It was the only safe harbor from CVRA lawsuits that tend to be costly to fight and tough to win, according to

Salt would guide WSCUHSD through the transition process for the rest of the year. The process involved splitting the district into five equally populated trustee areas, so that each trustee gets elected by the voters living in the same trustee area they do.

In mid-February, west county schools developed COVID-19 safety plans to bring elementary students and some middle-schoolers back into the classroom for in-person learning. The state was still using a color-tiered framework, and schools teaching transitional kindergarten to sixth grade could reopen in the purple tear if state and local officials accepted their plans under California’s Safe Schools for All Plan.

By late March, WSCUHSD welcomed back its first student cohort on campus for a reopened special education class. Adam Alcorn taught the course in a hybrid format with some students at Analy High and others on Zoom.

March approached with a special election for west county voters to pass or fail two measures seeking funding for the region’s schools — and the WSCUHSD in particular. Measure A proposed a three-year parcel tax of $48 to protect various elective and career technical programs, keep staff and maintain low class sizes at the three schools.

Measure B proposed charging guests an additional 4% transient occupancy tax at inns, hotels, motels, vacation rentals and more in the unincorporated regions of the school district and the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District (BBFPD). Hospitality leaders of west county assembled in opposition.

The revenue was to be shared between the fire district and local school districts so BBFPD could consolidate with the Sonoma County Fire District and so WSCUHSD could stave off consolidation for at least another year. Other west county schools could get in on these funds, too, as SoCoNews reported in late February, but both measures fell short of the two-thirds majority vote to succeed.

The loss of those measures opened up the runway for high school consolidation to take off. Back in November 2020, the board passed a resolution to merge comprehensive high schools in the 2021-22 year if neither measure passed.

It was intended to be a placeholder plan, but on March 10, the board of trustees voted 3-2 to approve a fiscal recovery plan including merging Analy and El Molino to address the district’s structural deficit that was estimated to be roughly $2 million by the 2022-23 school year.

Those students would all be attending the Analy campus in Sebastopol in the fall, while Laguna High School students and the district office would be relocated onto the former El Molino campus in Forestville.

El Molino community members were devastated, though some people in the district argued that it just wouldn’t be possible to afford running two schools with declining enrollment and continued cuts to courses. On March 16, the school board voted to rebrand the consolidated high school for a more unified identity and Laguna for a chance to break from its reputation.

At that time, the district also aimed to shift to a hybrid model of distance learning and on-campus instruction in mid-April. Guerneville School District greeted students in transitional kindergarten through second grade back at Guerneville Elementary School late March.

Significant organizing arose in the wake of the consolidation decision. In April, some people in the community raised a recall effort against the trustees who voted to authorize consolidation. A rally of about 50 people took place in Sebastopol calling for a revote against the merger.

Students returned to El Molino, Analy and Laguna for hybrid learning in mid-April for their last semester at each before the consolidation shuffled school populations. At the April 14 board meeting, trustees approved then-Analy principal Shauna Ferdinandson as principal of the consolidated school to launch in fall of 2021.

At that same meeting, news broke that Ogston resigned as the district’s chief business official, effective that day. A start date had emerged for another career opportunity as a personal financial planner that May. Some were skeptical of his departure so soon after the consolidation decision driven by budget issues.

SoCoNews received a press release on April 22 from a somewhat newly formed Community Alliance for Responsible Education (CARE) announcing the group had filed a lawsuit against the district over its vote to consolidate, specifically in regards to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

Many community members urged the district to hold off on deciding to consolidate by claiming incoming COVID-19 relief funds could be used to prevent consolidation in the fall. Local education officials disagreed, stating the district wasn’t authorized to use that state and federal funding for non-COVID-19 related costs.

Tensions rose in the Twin Hills Union School District (THUSD), too. After months of negotiation, the Twin Hills Teachers Association (THTA) voted on May 12 to authorize a strike if the district couldn’t agree to increased salaries.

Coincidentally, Superintendent Barbara Bickford was looking to retire after nine years leading the district and 45 years working in public education. The THUSD school board approved former Twin Hills student Dr. Anna-Maria Guzmán as the next superintendent on May 13. She last served as the assistant superintendent of the Santa Rosa City Schools for eight years.

Back at WSCUHSD, the trustees voted in early May to halt the rebranding timeline until the budget looked more stable, now that the district faced a pending lawsuit, a transition to a by-trustee area election system and a potential recall election to pay for.

However, attendees came away from the May 12 board meeting with an established bridge name for the consolidated high school — West County High School (WCHS). The trustees decided to go with it so students had some kind of new shared identity to represent in the fall, and in sports as well.

The WSCUHSD board also finalized certificated employee layoffs for the coming school year, averting most of its initial layoffs issued when the trustees approved a reduction or discontinuation of certain services through the consolidation. Human Resources Director Mia Del Prete informed SoCoNews that as of May 24, the district would be laying off one teacher.

June began with bittersweet graduations at Analy, El Molino and Laguna after a year of mostly online education. According to Principal Allie Greene, almost three times as many students graduated from Laguna in 2021 compared to the year before. El Molino launched its last graduating class into the next chapter of their lives and Analy students walked across the stage and left behind the school as they knew it, soon to change that fall.

Summer wasn’t the end for the school board, which approved the district’s 2021-22 budget and the newest version of its Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP) on June 23. The LCAP is a three-year plan to direct state funding to serve students, prioritizing those facing additional obstacles like foster students, English learners and socioeconomically disadvantaged youth.

August arrived soon enough and schools welcomed their students back to class. Meanwhile, recall campaigners continued to gather signatures to unseat WSCUHSD Board President Kellie Noe and Vice President Jeanne Fernandes. Laurie Fadave, the third trustee who voted to proceed with the consolidation, resigned from the board at the end of July. However, the Sonoma County Registrar of Voters Office found the ultimate tally came up thousands of signatures short of what it would take to call for an election.

The Twin Hills district averted the union teacher strike when the two parties managed a compromise. THTA ratified an agreement over salary raises, voting to accept a 2% on-schedule salary increase for the 2020-21 school year and a 4% on-schedule salary raise for the 2021-22 school year, according to an Aug. 9 district press release.

The WSCUHSD community didn’t catch much of a break that year, let alone that fall semester. Not a week into September, WCHS staff found out a shooting threat had been posted to Instagram Labor Day evening.

The Sebastopol Police Department (SPD) opened an investigation and found that while the threat was probably for WCHS, it was not credible “and may have been posted in an attempt to have classes canceled,” said Police Chief Kevin Kilgore. Classes continued the next day, Sept. 7, with increased police presence. Beal said parents were informed that morning.

Days later, WCHS administration and Sebastopol police locked down the campus the morning of Sept. 9 after students reported a rumor that another student had a gun. No weapon was found and neither injuries nor sightings of someone with a gun were reported, Kilgore said. Administrators lifted the lockdown by the afternoon.

One evening in late October, another threat appeared on social media, against Laguna High. This time, the district canceled classes at WCHS and Laguna at the Forestville campus, since Laguna has now existed on both.

SPD found the threat not credible and considered the local investigation closed after finding the same social media post had spread in Georgia, Florida and Lincoln, California, written by someone who was arrested in Jupiter, Florida.

With two pre-map public hearings behind the district, WSCUHSD released potential voting area maps ahead of its first public hearing on Nov. 10. The hearing sought input on the options drafted by a hired demographer for the transition to a by-trustee area election system.

The point of the transition is to preserve the ability of protected classes to affect the outcome of an election. Salt stated all trustees were legally elected to office and set to serve out their full terms no matter where they live, but eventually there will be one trustee per trustee voting area over the coming election cycles.

In November, Laguna High continued its grocery pickup program that began early in the pandemic with the Redwood Empire Food Bank to provide free food to students’ families. “We know that kids can access their education better if they are not hungry,” Principal Allie Greene said. In October, students considered particularly at-risk were matched with free shoes.

The continuation high school is stigmatized as where the ‘bad kids’ are said to go, she said, but Laguna is accurately a school where over half qualify for free and reduced lunch and 25% experiencing unstable housing, serving low-income students with great need among the community.

County superintendent Steve Herrington set the record straight in November about the west county district unification study that could impact schools at every grade. At the request of WSCUHSD in 2020, the study will explore whether creating a TK-12 district joining one or more districts with its high school would support the community economically and educationally.

Herrington said all districts in west county were dealing with declining enrollment and that the study could even say that no combination of districts would work for a K-12 program. He said the Analy and El Molino consolidation did not factor into the study, but that the study includes looking at WSCUHSD’s long-term sustainability and whether a K-12 Russian River area district would be feasible.

If the study finds district unification to be economically feasible in the first place and continues, then a concluding report and recommendation could arrive anywhere between a year and 14 months from now, he said. The process could also take years. School boards do not have to follow the study’s recommendation, but other actors could still keep the ball rolling.

Superintendent Toni Beal and some board members sent a final student survey out to gather feedback on rebranding before a decision would be made. The results came in with 52% of respondents in favor of Analy and 32.1% in support of West County as the permanent name for the school, Beal announced at the Dec. 1 special board meeting.

As SoCoNews reported in early December, the survey gathered 93% participation with 1,148 responses out of 1,403 total students. However, 9.4% students voted to abstain, about 6% preferred an “other” option and 147 students missed the survey because they were absent.

After months of acrimonious debate over whether to rebrand and how, the school board rescinded the March 16 vote to rebrand the consolidated high school and chose to re-establish its identity as Analy. Lewis and student representative Dylan Peña Pérez voted against the motion.

The superintendent said the district would need to wait until the end of the school year to engage the National Collegiate Athletic Association in changing the school’s name back to Analy, but it could happen by August for the 2022-23 school year if the process started in June.

Overnight, students organized a walkout against the vote to reinstate the Analy name the very next morning. They strode from campus into downtown, the Barlow and back with pride in the bridge name West County High.

On Dec. 15, the school board chose the “Scenario 1” trustee voting area map to use for future board elections if it gets the stamp of approval from the Sonoma County Committee on School District Organization.

The transition to the by-trustee area election method will be in effect for zones one, three and five to elect their representatives in the 2022 elections and zones two and four to elect their trustees in the 2024 elections.

The map stays in effect until the 2030 census if the county committee approves, according to Jonathan Salt of Fagen Friedman & Fulfrost LLP. Details of the map and the process can be found in reporting by SoCoNews here.

The board also reorganized to seat Trustee Patrick Nagle as president for 2022, Jeanne Fernandes as a returning vice president and Trustee Julie Aiello as clerk during that last board meeting of the year.

This article was produced by SoCoNews. See more news at soconews.org