By Anna Pier | Sonoma Sun —
At a packed-house marathon meeting March 9, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board voted 3-2 against a proposal to close Dunbar School for the year 2023-24. The item emerged from a larger proposal by Trustee John Kelly to respond to declining district-wide enrollment by “changing school configuration.” That was to include closing the District’s Glen Ellen campus, Dunbar, which is at less than 50% of capacity.
Dunbar teachers and staff recognized, through a public letter to the board, that the school is a likely target for closure. “We understand the reasons why. We also understand that you, as our trustees, must do what’s best for students districtwide. We support you in this.”
The idea was voted down by a majority looking for a more thoughtful, phased process. “We have to go slow to go fast,” said Board President Anne Ching.
Ching believes the current financial scenarios allow the District to continue to operate as is, drawing down reserves which could last for five years. In an interview prior to that meeting, Ching, a self-described “process person,” referred to the Closing a School Best Practices Guide published online by the California Department of Education.
“You can’t just turn the switch,” she said. There is an established process, she said, including creating a commission of stakeholders. She pointed out that some districts which have hurried the process have had troubled outcomes. Oakland is currently in a lawsuit for violating some of the state guidelines.
Student enrollment has seen sharp declines, Ching acknowledges. District schools – five elementary, two middle schools, and the high school and Creekside – have a total capacity of 6,000 students, counting portables. Current enrollment is 3,400, and forecast to drop to 2,000 by 2030.
Kelly explained that once a decision to close Dunbar is taken, the domino effect leads to complete reconfiguration. He believes the issue, in the face of years of declining enrollment, has been too long postponed. “The District is trapped in amber,” he said.
Attendance districts, designating which of the five SVUSD elementary schools a child will attend, have been tweaked and redrawn several times in the last decade to balance the number of students. To address inequities in representation on the Board of Trustees, there is a Trustee Area map as well.
The map of attendance districts shows that the preponderance of SVUSD elementary students live in the Springs; and the large area boundaries for Dunbar and Prestwood reflect the small numbers of elementary-age students residing near those two sites. Trustee Celeste Winders, who represents the Flowery district, advocates for Flowery, currently a dual-immersion school with a lottery-based admission system, and El Verano to be neighborhood schools.
Winders explains, “This is about needing to be able to walk to the school campus. Imagine your child is sick at school and you can’t get there because you lack transportation and the school is miles from your home. That has been the reality for many families in the Springs.”
Additionally, access to family resources at a community school is essential for disadvantaged families, Winders said. “This is an equity issue and something as a board we continue to keep up front as we make the many decisions needed throughout the school realignment process.”
The Dunbar staff letter specifically requests action by the trustees earlier than April 20, the board’s next regularly scheduled meeting. It is board best practice to make large decisions in regularly scheduled meetings, for optimal transparency and public access. Still, it is possible another vote on the closure of Dunbar may be taken at the public Study Session on facilities and reconfiguration on March 25, 9-11:30 am at the District office. This session will be followed by a second session, approximately 12-2 pm, focused on school safety.