The rumblings have only just begun now that the Sonoma County Office of Education has chosen its vendor to lead a district unification study that could give rise to a K-12 district in west county. It’s probably going to take a while to find out, though, ventured Steve Herrington, county superintendent of schools.
Eleven school districts dot the county’s weathered western lands, and in September of 2020, the West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD) requested a study to examine whether forming a TK-12 district that joins one or more districts with the high school would support the community, he said — especially economically.
“The reality is they’re dealing with multiple problems in west county,” Herrington said, like declining enrollment in all of its districts. “And the study could come back and say none of them would be a very good configuration to run a K-12 program. And that’s very possible.”
The Santa Rosa Union High School requested the same such study a month later, so the selected firm will be taking on two independent studies with Herrington’s direction, starting with west county first. Altogether, the studies will cost SCOE nearly $200,000, he said. SCOE cannot legally release the selected vendor’s identity until the contract is signed.
The county superintendent said the feasibility of a K-12 Russian River area district is one of the configurations to be studied. As for how another high school could come about, “We don’t know yet. We don’t even know if they have enough students to generate enough to support a high school,” he said.
According to Herrington, the study will need to examine incoming kindergarten enrollment projected over the years as well as incoming eighth grade enrollment. If the numbers can sustain a high school by enrollment, the study would need to determine if it would be fiscally solvent in the first place.
The consolidation of Analy High School and El Molino High School “has no bearing in this,” he said, but the study will examine the long-term sustainability of the West Sonoma High School District (WSCUHSD) itself.
Herrington said the unification study will be conducted without the assumption that WSCUHSD would reconfigure itself in some way to re-establish in the river area because those decisions are within its school board’s purview.
However, the study would look into the residual impact a new Russian River area high school could have on WSCUHSD, like whether it could “make it too small to support itself,” he said. The study could recommend for there to be another high school district in deeper west county, but school boards decide on their own whether to endorse it, he said.
A long process no matter how you slice it
The study will be divided into two parts, first assessing whether district unification is economically feasible. If so, Herrington said he would then authorize the vendor to study
whether any viable configurations make sense on an educational level — part two.
He requested that the firm have its economic reports complete by the end of June 2022.
“It could take longer. It could take shorter, to be quite honest,” he said. If the study continues, Herrington estimated west county could receive a concluding report and recommendation anywhere from 12 to 14 months from now.
“I want people to understand that just because the study is completed doesn’t mean it’s unifying,” he said, explaining that a multiple-year process of many steps and variables tends to follow.
Respective school boards would receive the study’s report and if there is a workable unification model, they can pass a resolution in support or just let the recommendation sit, Herrington said.
However, he said, “If you have a feasible recommendation, and everyone chooses to sit on it, there are other entities that can act if they are within the boundaries of the new district.”
Ten percent of the electorate and any elected body within the bounds of the recommended new district — like the Sebastopol City Council, perhaps — can petition the county committee to take up a review.
If there’s a board proposal or a petition to unify, the county committee can dismiss or grant the petition to move forward to a public hearing within 60 days, per the rundown provided by SCOE. After the public hearing process, the committee must notify a local agency formation commission that it will begin the steps to consider the reorganization.
Then, the county committee reviews the proposed unification’s impacts and recommends approving or disapproving the petition. The committee might also make suggestions on the election’s area, SCOE’s outline summarized.
Next, the committee sends the petition, recommendations and more to the State Board of Education that ultimately decides whether to let voters decide in an election if unification is the way.
If the new district configuration is approved, Herrington said there’s a transitional year for the districts to reorganize. But even if school boards do nothing with the results, the study would still be the first local unification study in fifteen years and the first to be accomplished under California’s new school funding model, he said.
“The fastest I’ve seen a unification study has been about two and a half years from start to end,” Herrington said of his 51 years in education. A somewhat recent unification forming Sacramento County’s Twin Rivers Unified School District took ten and a half years, he said, “start to end.”
West county district leaders dig into the decision-making
“The tradition of having 40 different school districts in Sonoma County — it doesn’t happen by accident,” said Superintendent Dave Rose of the Gravenstein Union School District. “Parents are always on the lookout for something special and unique they feel is going to be the best match for their child’s growth and development and preparation.”
He stated families may be reluctant to support unification if it means they would be asked to give up the individuality of their schools. “The advantage, of course, is because you have the economy of scale, there are greater resources at your disposal as a school district, as a school site,” Rose said, if districts came together. On the other hand, unifying could jeopardize unique programming.
His priority is to maintain his district’s Enrich! program that offers students more daily electives and smaller class sizes. “And if that means we can do that by joining another district and getting access to more resources, that would be something that I would recommend. If it means we’d have to give up those two priorities, it’s not something that I would be supportive of and it would be hard for me to recommend that to our board,” Rose said.
He said each district has complex funding mechanisms that would take intense study to see what it would mean if districts joined under one high school district, describing school finance as “one of the most complicated systems known to man.”
Bridging schools and budgets isn’t new for West Sonoma County Union High School District (WSCUHSD), which consolidated Analy High School and El Molino High School in the fall of 2021.
Besides her role as its school board vice president, Jeanne Fernandes also chairs the county committee on district organization and offered her insights. First, she said she will be recusing herself from any potential voting on the unification study.
Like Rose, Fernandes pointed out that even if there is an economically sound district configuration, it’s up to individual school boards to decide what to do with the study’s findings and they might not want to because it could mean losing local control and autonomy.
Money gets funny when districts unify, she’s found. First off, all previous parcel taxes of the merging districts become “null and void,” she said.
The west county high school district is funded through the state’s Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), while plenty of other districts in the region are “basic aid,” meaning their local property tax revenue is more than what they’d get from the state. Typically, she said, it’s districts with fewer kids enrolled that have higher property tax fundings that become basic-aid.
Fernandes said people often want the answers as soon as possible, but a district unification study is meant to be a “long, arduous process” to ensure all requirements are met. If any models make it through every hoop, an election could take place in 2023, she estimated.
When the study is in the county committee’s hands, the committee moves forward based on whether all of the steps have been followed, not whether they like the proposed model, Fernandes said, supported by a legal team and a handbook on county school district organization.