School district consolidation will not save El Molino High School (and neither will higher taxes)

The Sonoma County Gazette

Jim Horn

January 29, 2021

The idea of consolidating the West County’s two main high schools into one isn’t new, though some claim it is. As a FAQ on the high school district website puts it, “The conversation about consolidation of our 2 comprehensive high schools has been talked about for more than 10 years as a way to address our budget and programming issues.” The most sensible scenario clearly is to move the smaller El Molino student body to the Analy High School campus, and the District began that painful process last fall.

But faced with fervent pushback from El Molino supporters, the District school board blinked. West County voters will instead face two proposed tax increases on the March 2 ballot, both with saving El Molino as subtext.

What’s being asked?

Measure A is a $48 tax for three years on parcels within the District. Raising an estimated $1.15 million annually, this tax would be added to the existing $79/parcel tax approved by voters just last March that already costs property owners about $1.8 million per year for the next eight years. On paper, both taxes support the same things: music, art, drama and career programs, retaining staff and maintaining smaller class sizes.

But proponents clearly intend for the new tax to keep El Molino HS open for at least another three years—though you wouldn’t know it by reading the measure itself.

The second tax, Measure B, would increase the existing Transient Occupancy Tax from 12% to 16%, yielding an additional estimated (but uncertain) $2.7 million each year. Although originally intended to fund hard-pressed fire districts exclusively, it was amended at the last minute by the Board of Supervisors to split proceeds 50-50 with West County school districts that meet certain poorly defined requirements. Again, though, the intended beneficiary is to keep El Molino open.

In addition, proponents of both tax measures also dangle the prospect of West County school district “unification” as a long-term way to balance budgets and keep El Mo open. The idea would be to combine all West County school districts into one or two K-12 “unified” districts.

Breaking down the arguments

Some fans of this idea claim that a 2006 study commissioned by the Sonoma County Office of Education (SCOE) demonstrated educational benefits and significant savings from unification. I served on the Gravenstein school board for 17 years, from 2002 to 2019, and I prepared a detailed analysis of that study at the time. It was a mess, packed with data errors and WAGs (wild-ass guesses). Even ignoring the errors and accepting all of the assumptions at face value, the estimated savings were less than half-a-percent of the total district budget--well within any reasonable margin of error. And the study explicitly avoided making any claims about improving student education.

Some also claim that a SoCo Grand Jury report in 2011 made similarly rosy findings about unification. I testified before that Grand Jury in 2011. In the end, the Grand Jury made no findings about potential savings from unification and only one vague recommendation for “articulated curriculum” between elementary and high schools—something that West County districts had been doing for years anyway.

In reality, the District is caught between spiraling expenses and declining enrollment—and the long-term enrollment picture does not favor El Molino.

Over the last 10 years, total high school enrollment has declined by 20%, with varying declines at most of the elementary feeder districts. The Forestville and Sebastopol districts dropped by more than 30% in that period. Only one district, Gravenstein, has shown substantial growth, increasing by 20% in the last decade and roughly 50% in the last 20 years. But most of Gravenstein’s enrollment growth has come from neighboring districts to the south and east. When those students advance to high school, they’re unlikely to commute all the way to El Molino. In fact, El Mo currently has 33% of the district’s regular students but only 20% of its interdistrict transfers—a sign of students and parents voting for Analy with their feet.

Enrollment in West Sonoma County Union High School's District has been steadily declining for almost a decade.

District unification won’t solve El Molino’s problems, and neither will higher taxes. If the new parcel tax passes, the District likely will dither for another three years, at taxpayer expense of nearly $3.5 million, and then proclaim another crisis. By then the demographics and budget deficits will be even worse, but the public pressure to save El Mo will rise once again to extend the tax and “buy more time.”

Measure B, the Transient Tax, was a sensible proposal when originally limited to fire districts. But as amended, it would give the Board of Supervisors perhaps $1.3 million to give to unidentified West County school districts that are “actively working towards regional unification and striving to maintain existing school facilities and programs.” The measure is silent on how this is defined or measured and how the money will be split up among competing districts. But the high school district seemingly has disqualified itself already from this largesse by adopting a plan last November to delay any action on consolidation if either or both taxes pass. Although the District will still submit a campus consolidation plan to balance its budget and keep SCOE off its back, the District superintendent admitted, “The board doesn’t have an intention to actually implement this.” Thus saying the quiet part aloud.

Will West County voters choose to tax themselves and their visitors to delay the inevitable? We’ll see.

Jim Horn is a retired engineer and served on the Gravenstein school board of trustees for 17 years.

Originally published in the Sonoma County Gazette, January 29, 2021

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