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What’s new is obvious at Petaluma school sites

Much of what is new in the Petaluma City Schools District as Gary Callahan enters his third school year as superintendent is plainly visible.

A multitude of high profile additions and improvements to school facilities financed by bonds approved by voters in 2014, augmented by money from the district’s capital improvements budget, have been completed or in the process of being done as the school year begins.

Callahan said more projects are to come. “Right now we are about at the mid-phase of our bond projects,” he said. “We are going to do an outreach to determine what next significant projects need to be accomplished.”

Most apparent of the improvements is a new synthetic turf field and track at Petaluma High School, Included are a new entranceway, new snack bar, new bathrooms, new ticket booth and work to bring the field and stands into ADA compliance.

Among other projects completed or underway are new state-o-the art media arts lab and new facilities for the school’s award-winning student television program at Kenilworth Junior High; a new entrance and play area for McKinley School; the addition of three new classrooms as McDowell School adds a fifth grade; conversion of the computer lab into an arts and science center at McNear School; and an new elevated walkway for the F wing at Petaluma High School.

Every school in the district now has solar panels resulting in significant energy cost savings.

“We’ve done a lot of work modernizing are schools and even more is under development,” said Callahan.

Inside the classrooms there are also several changes, including a new auto shop teacher and a revitalization of that program at Petaluma High School, new teaching materials for the English and Language Arts programs, more advanced acceleration classes, an expansion of the collaborative English classes and the addition of a fifth-grade class at McDowell School with a sixth grade to follow next year and more.

A new event, actually the return and re-focusing of a traditional event, may well be the highlight of the school year, at least until graduation. The Egg Bowl, the varsity football game between rivals Petaluma and Casa Grande, will be back this fall. The focus is on community and unity with events planned for the whole town on the day of the game (Sept. 16), and players from both teams joining to help in community events including aiding in the Petaluma Educational Foundation’s big PEF Bash.

“I’m excited about the re-introduction of the Egg Bowl,” said Callahan. “It is going to be a great community event.”

The school district is growing, with attendance slightly up and more teachers. Ten teachers retired from the district, but 30 were added.

Marcia Short has taken over as director of transportation. Otherwise the top positions in Callahan’s administrative team remain unchanged, a sharp difference from a year ago when there several new people in key positions.

“Having a stable staff has really helped,” Callahan said. “We know what our challenges are now and we can work together to meet those challenges.”

Three administrative positions have been eliminated as part of an effort to reduce the district’s budget deficit. “We made some extreme cuts last year,” Callahan said. “We found close to $2 million that we could make in budget cuts without adversely impacting our classroom programs,”

Even as the district attempts to preserve its reserve funds, it faces a new challenge from the state, which is requiring that it pay more into the teacher’s retirement fund.

Under the state mandate, teachers’ contribution to the fund will climb from 8.3 percent to 10 percent over the next two years, but the district’s contribution will go from 8.5 percent to 19.1 percent.

Chief business official Chris Thomas estimates that the required contribution will cost the district an average of $4 million annually over the next seven years.

“This is something put on us by the state,” said Callahan. “It’s not just the school districts that are hit. The teachers also saw a reduction in their pay checks.”

Meanwhile, the district is faced with negotiating a new contract with the teachers. Those negotiations became contentious before school finished last spring. Callahan said that negotiations are continuing, and that the district and teacher representatives had met to discuss declaring a pre-impasse, a move necessary before asking for a state mediator to be brought into the negotiations.

Even as the district deals with its financial challenges and celebrates the start of a new school year, the superintendent is looking toward the future.

“I’m most excited about the great jobs our teachers and staff are doing, and some of the plans they are working on that will really take our school district to the next level,” he said.