Amidst the fight over the planned consolidation of Analy and El Molino high schools, which now includes a lawsuit filed to delay consolidation and threats of recall petitions against three West Sonoma County Union High School District trustees, El Mo supporters often mention one long-term solution. They propose splitting the current high school district in two, with El Mo joining its elementary “feeder” districts to form a new unified (grades K-12) district. Some claim that this new “El Mo” district would capture about 60% of the current tax base, thus ensuring plentiful funding going forward. The remaining “Analy” district would be left to fend for itself with reduced tax revenues and with or without its feeder districts in tow.
But what might these new El Mo and Analy districts look like? Are the proponents right about El Mo’s rosy financial prospects?
Let’s begin by noting that the current high school district boundaries contain 10 independent elementary school feeder districts (see map). Based on enrollment data provided by the district for March 2021 (see chart), nearly half (46%) of current district students have Sebastopol addresses. This includes students living in the Sebastopol Union elementary district but also those who live in neighboring Gravenstein, Twin Hills and the western portion of the Oak Grove district. Another 25% of students have Santa Rosa addresses, including some who live in the eastern part of Oak Grove along with out-of-district kids. A smaller group (5%) comes from Graton, Cotati and Rohnert Park. Altogether, these three batches of students constitute 77% of all west county high school students, and the overwhelming majority — about 80% — attends Analy. So it makes sense for comparison’s sake to include these four southeastern feeder districts in a hypothetical “Analy” district.
The other six feeder districts provide the remaining 23% of all high school students. Since 81% of these students attend El Mo, we’ll group these six feeders in a hypothetical “El Mo” district. (It’s worth noting that more west county high school students live in the Santa Rosa area alone than in all six “El Mo” districts combined.)
Clearly, the map shows that the El Mo district would be much larger in area than Analy and, as proponents have noted, would contain about 60% of the taxable parcels. That would give El Mo about $1.2 million of the current $1.8 million parcel tax proceeds. But the parcel tax provides less than 7% of the district’s total 2020 budget — hardly a guarantee of future solvency. And according to the county assessor’s 2020 figures, El Mo would have only about 45% of the west county’s total secured property tax base versus 55% for Analy.
More importantly, since current high school funding depends primarily on the number of students enrolled and attending, the Analy district would have a much greater advantage. Currently, more than twice as many students attend Analy High School as El Mo, and the Analy advantage has grown over time.
Moreover, the difference in feeder school attendance is even greater. In 2019-20, the four Analy feeder districts had three times as many elementary students combined as the six El Mo feeders — and the trend is not promising for El Mo. Over the last 10 years, attendance at the El Mo feeders has declined by 21%, while the Analy feeders have dropped by only 4%. In the Forestville district alone — the home of El Molino High School — attendance has declined by 57% since 2002, from 631 students to only 270.
These comparisons are muddied a bit because, unlike the high school district itself, many west county feeder districts are “Basic Aid” districts. In general, this means that the number of students is relatively small compared to the district’s property tax base. A Basic Aid district receives somewhat more money through local property taxes than if funded based on student attendance alone. This is good for a district like Forestville with declining enrollment, but it limits funding growth to increasing taxable property values, which are constrained by Proposition 13.
To complicate the analysis further, many Basic Aid districts get additional “supplement” funding from the state. This supplement is generated by students coming from outside the district who attend a district charter school. Altogether, the west county feeder schools receive nearly $9 million a year in such funding, but 70% goes to Analy feeders and only 30% goes to El Mo feeders.
Counting all state and local sources, the four Analy feeder districts receive twice as much funding as the six El Mo feeder districts. It’s reasonable to assume that this two-to-one proportion would hold if the High School district were split in two. Moreover, Analy would have two to three times as many students as El Mo, with the discrepancy between the two likely growing over time.
Could El Mo survive without cuts to education or a significant increase in local parcel taxes? A more detailed analysis planned for the next 12-18 months may provide answers.