West Sonoma County School District Launches Consolidation Feasibility Study

Facing budget challenges and declining enrollment, the West Sonoma County Union High School District has commissioned a study to examine the feasibility of consolidation with any of the 10 districts that feed into the high school district.

School board trustees unanimously made the move official at their regular board meeting on Wednesday night. The study will cover all 10 districts that fall within the West County High School District: Fort Ross, Montgomery, Guerneville, Monte Rio, Forestville, Harmony, Oak Grove, Sebastopol, Twin Hills and Gravestine.

A study asking the same question in 2006 found that combining 11 districts would save at least $ 200,000 per year, but those findings have now been partially eliminated because the structure of school funding in 2013 Fundamentally transferred, for some there was a question of financial gain to merge.

Nevertheless, high school district officials said this week that a new analysis would be beneficial for all schools.

“I think it’s high time we take a good, fresh look at it again,” West County Trustee Ted Walker said Wednesday.

The West County High School District consists of Analysis, El Molino and Laguna High Schools and enrolls approximately 1,700 students. If all 11 districts were combined, enrollment would have been about 6,000 students, which was the third place in Sonoma County after Santa Rosa and Petalama, along with Koti-Rohnert Park.

The study is likely to examine the feasibility, and financial and academic impact of any combination of 11 districts ranging from the merger of two districts to 11.

The vote works on a discussion that went on since last spring, but has been part of an educational debate in the county for decades, with 40 individual school districts for less than 70,000 schoolchildren.

West County Union High School District Superintendent Tony Beal said Wednesday, “To be clear, the feasibility study does not force anyone to consolidate, it does not obligate anyone to integrate.” “Based on that report, we can, and other districts can decide if they want to do anything about it. … there is really no risk other than that we are going to keep the information. ”

Beal acknowledged that the talk of consolidation runs through many conversations as school districts in the region face increasing financial pressures and frequent enrollment declines.

“Will it save us money?” Or will it help the district? Or will it help the students? Beal said that there is no answer. “We started talking about it in the spring, but then COVID was a hit.”

The vote instructs Sonoma County School Superintendent Steve Herrington to begin the process of hiring a firm to conduct the study, which Herrington estimates could take up to a year to complete. The county office has a budget of $ 65,000 for such study, he said.

The analysis is expected to include, but is not limited to, transportation, existing district-specific voter-approved bonds, varying property tax structures between districts, based on student population, union bargaining agreements, facilities, and enrollment status Different state funding formulas. Trends, among other factors.

And the results may look different for different districts, Herrington said.

“There will be an approach in all districts,” he said. “For some it may be beneficial, for some it may not be.”

Districts along the contiguous borders may serve different populations to a large extent and there may be different funding models due to differences in those.

Any consolidation, even between just two districts, would call for a restructuring budget; Salary, seniority and benefits of employees; And board representation. This would require approval from voters.

“I think I am not here to weigh in better or best. I think it is not a bad thing to ask this question: ‘Is there a better way to teach?’ “Sebastopol Union Superintendent Linda Irving said. “I think it’s good that the county is paying for the study.”

For many districts, the salary and benefits package can be between 80% and 85% of a district’s budget. Therefore, talk of cost reduction or cost-saving moves directly to staffing.

Guernville School District Superintendent Dana Pedersen said comparing employee contracts, benefit packages, and seniority alone could prove to be complicated.

“For each of your districts you have two unions representing classified employees and certified (teachers),” she said. “Where it really comes to play, you have 20 different bargaining agreements.” You have to consider 20 different agreements. Not only this, I think in the study it should be seen that in which salary schedule you are putting all these new people. If you do this then I question savings. “