Sebastopol district considers closing another school
Published: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 3:26 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 23, 2013 at 3:26 p.m.
For the second time in two years, the Sebastopol School District is examining campus consolidation and possibly closing a school.
Last week the district moved to establish a state-mandated committee to analyze the possibility of selling, leasing or renting surplus property — namely one of the two remaining active Sebastopol City Schools. Applications to be part of the committee are due Monday.
Neither Brook Haven, which serves kindergarten through eighth graders, nor Park Side, which is a K-5 campus, is expected to be closed or reconfigured before the 2014-15 school year, said Superintendent Liz Schott.
“This is not, under any circumstance, a done deal,” she said. “This is going to be a lively dialogue.”
The district has been through the prospect of a school closure before.
Beset by declining enrollment and ongoing budget woes, district officials in 2011 shuttered Pine Crest Elementary School and began leasing that space on Hayden Avenue to two charter schools. That arrangement generates nearly $200,000 a year but hasn't eliminated the district's chronic deficit spending.
Revenues in the current school year are $5,250,000 while spending is $5.3 million. The trend continues next year when revenues are projected to be $5,018,000 while spending is slated to hit $5.2 million.
Since 2007-08, state revenue to Sonoma County schools has dropped 18 percent. Factoring in the loss of traditional cost-of-living revenue adjustments, the net loss is 20- to 24-percent, Schott said
“We are getting 75 cents on every dollar. That's tough,” she said.
At the same time, enrollment has fallen off sharply.
The district had 1,400 students in 1996-97 but 650 today. During that time, overall student enrollment across Sonoma County has remained flat.
And enrollment projections show a shrinking pool of students. There are currently 90 to 100 kids in each seventh and and eighth grade class but only 58 students in the sixth grade.
“We have been talking about this for a long time at the board level and with the employee groups — the fact that we are not out of the woods yet,” Schott said. “There are very few places to look for that kind of revenue.”
“I don't think anybody is shocked anymore,” she said. “The conversation we are engaged in now is whether we should be focusing on what we have versus what we don't have.”
School choice has prompted a proliferation of school options in Sebastopol and the outlying area, leaving the district to scramble for students and the state funding that comes with them.
“I guess it's a parent's market,” said Laurie Whiteside, principal at Park Side School on Bodega Avenue.
“In another way, it kind of dissipates the resources so it's much more difficult to build a strong program when you don't know from year to year what choices parents will make,” she said.
Both Park Side and Brook Haven post strong academic records. Park Side has increased from an Academic Performance Index score of 813 out of 1,000 in 2007 to 835 in 2012.
Brook Haven has gone from a 761 in 2007 to 798 in 2012.
The state goal is 800.
Board members want a breadth of opinion as to what direction the district should go, said Deborah Drehmel, a 15-year board veteran and current president. “Our expectation is that we will be provided with recommendations from a wide range of stakeholders,” she said.
Complicating matters is Park Side School's position, after a five-year application process, as a International Baccalaureate Primary Years Program — the only one in Sonoma County. An official I.B. school cannot be housed in the same facility as a non-I.B. campus.
“Whatever we do, we have to make sure it fits the parameters of I.B.,” Whiteside said. “If we are on the same campus, where there is a middle school and an elementary school, that would essentially be two schools on one campus.”
Sara Gramm, a third grade teacher at Park Side and president of the district's teachers' union, acknowledged the difficulty of a potential change.
“There is some nervousness; there is some apprehension. People don't want to go down to one site,” she said. “Taking away the emotional piece to it and looking at finances and numbers, I think is one of the hard parts.”
The changes come at a time when Schott has been identified as the finalist for the superintendent post at the 1,200-student Kentfield School District in Marin County. Schott declined to comment on her potential departure at the end of the school year.
“The good thing is that she will be here through this period of very significant decision-making,” Drehmel said. “It is very bittersweet.”
(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)
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