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The work of Lis MacDonald is on exhibit at the Napa County Library this month.    

Napa Valley Unified facing more budget deficits and tough choices

Napa Valley Unified School District is facing the prospect of more budget deficits, program cuts and layoffs as a result of declining enrollment, increasing costs related to pensions, and other factors.

Assistant Superintendent Wade Roach broke the bad news to the school board last Thursday, informing trustees that projected deficits over the next four years could add up to more than $12 million.

The announcement follows last year’s cuts totaling $12.3 million to erase deficits in last year’s and this year’s district budgets.

As with last year’s reductions, Roach blamed the current projections on shrinking student enrollment that has lowered district revenues, and increasing costs associated with two large pension programs, the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS).

“You have the declining enrollment impacting the revenue side of the ledger, and the increase in PERS and STRS impacting the expense side of the ledger,” Roach told the school board.

District spokesperson Elizabeth Emmett said on Tuesday that state-mandated employer contributions to PERS and STRS “are rising sharply and are scheduled to double by 2024.”

Emmett also noted that state education funding has not kept pace with costs incurred by school districts.

“Statewide, the Local Control Funding Formula funding increase is not enough to offset the cost increases necessitated by pensions, health care and other costs,” said Emmett. “It’s unsustainable. Districts all over the state are cutting programs and staff as they build their 2018-2019 budgets.”

Roach unveiled at the school board meeting a list of recommendations from the district’s budget advisory committee — made up of teachers, staff, union representatives, principals, trustees, parents and residents— to reduce costs and erase the red ink.

“It was an intense process,” said Roach, referring to the committee’s work as well as meetings held at school sites over the past few months to discuss the deficits and potential cuts.

The recommendations include possible layoffs of faculty and staff, as well as eliminating certain offerings, such as the seventh period at middle schools and high schools that allows students to take elective courses.

The suggested cuts have generated buzz and concerns among teachers and parents in American Canyon.

Many of them say the loss of the seventh period would deny students valuable electives like music, art, robotics, culinary and more.

The change could also impact other curriculum keystones like project-based learning (PBL).

“With the seven-period day, teachers are able — and are expected — to collaborate within their second prep period as well as attend professional development,” said one veteran teacher at American Canyon High School who asked not to be identified.

“Without this schedule [with a seventh period], it will only be a matter of time before we lose PBL as our foundation as teachers simply can’t and won’t spend their own time.”

Responding to concerns about losing the seventh period, Emmett said: “The seven-period day is a very popular feature because it allows for more choices for students. It is also an expensive program because it is people-intensive.”

She added, “So while that is not on our list of recommended cuts for this year, it certainly could be in the future if school funding remains low.”

Roach presented to the school board financial data and charts showing a somber outlook for a district that has been losing students for the past three years — and is expected to continue experiencing enrollment declines for at least four more years.

District officials and demographers have blamed skyrocketing housing costs for the student losses, saying area home prices and rents are unaffordable for many families with children.

District figures showed NVUSD is expected to lose 1,389 students between now and 2021-2022. Current enrollment stands at 17,818 pupils, but could drop to 16,429 by early next decade.

Fewer students means less education funding from the state, Roach explained. At the same time, district contributions to PERS and STRS will continue to go up over the next several years.

This combination is leaving NVUSD with projected budget imbalances for the remainder of this year ($3.39 million), plus deficits of $3.87 million for 2018-2019, $3.64 million in 2019-2020 and $1.35 million in 2020-2021.

Roach said those numbers could change as time goes on and the district has more solid information on enrollment in outlying years.

“Right now I would take [2019-20] and [2020-21] with a grain of salt,” he said, adding that any deficit reduction plans in the future will need to be “flexible.”

He said if the district has a deficit at the end of the current 2017-2018 year, it would be erased by trimming NVUSD’s rainy day fund.

“When we close the books this year, if we do have an operational deficit, then the offset will be a reduction in the reserve account,” said Roach.

As for next year and beyond, the list of recommended cuts includes eliminating a total of nearly 50 teaching positions over several years, plus some staff cuts.

Roach and Assistant Superintendent for Human Resources Alejandro Hogan said the district has already begun discussing possible faculty and staff cuts with union officials.

Last year, as part of eliminating the $12.3 million deficit, the district eliminated 110 faculty and staff positions. Most of those jobs (68) were held by teachers and other employees who retired, but 42 belonged to others who were laid off.

Last year, NVUSD also offered an early retirement incentive package that resulted in 52 teachers leaving.

Roach’s presentation to the school included brief discussions of ways for NVUSD to mitigate the impacts of enrollment declines.

One way would be to increase the number of inter-district transfers when students in other school districts decide to attend NVUSD schools.

An example provided by Roach showed if the district attracted 115 students through inter-district transfers, the gross revenue would be $1.23 million.

After factoring in costs from teaching these students, NVUSD could yield nearly $600,000 from such transfers.

“This is something we want to look at going forward to see if we can possibly increase inter-districts coming into Napa Valley Unified,” said Roach.

But, he added, “There’s a lot of issues involved. We can’t count those chickens until they’re hatched because the other district — the home district of that student — has to release the student to come” here.

Roach also floated the idea of trying to boost daily attendance by students, saying every excused and unexcused absence results in lost revenue for the district amounting to $65 per student each day.

If NVUSD increased student attendance rates by half a percent, it could generate $762,000 more money each year, officials said.

“The average Napa Valley Unified student is out seven days a year,” Roach told trustees. “If they are out only five days a year, that would give us 1.5 million dollars” more.

“So that’s how important attendance is,” he said.

Improving NVUSD’s student attendance could be challenging. School board President Joe Schunk noted that the district already has a high attendance rate of 96-97 percent.

Nevertheless, Trustee Thomas Kensok said the district should work on informing parents and students about the linkage between attendance and money for schools.

“I think it would be helpful to spread that information out there,” said Kensok.

Faster and cheaper, a prefab home pops up in Napa
J.L. Sousa, Register 

Workers prepare to lower a module of a prefabricated home into position at a job site on Dealy Lane on Wednesday morning.

Most new houses can take months, or even a year, to build. Craig Schauffel’s new home was practically done in less than a day.

Schauffel’s new abode – a prefabricated home — arrived in Napa on Wednesday via three large trucks carrying three huge “modules.”

After carefully backing up a slight hill to a waiting foundation, each section of the dwelling was then carefully lowered into place by a giant crane.

“It’s like Christmas,” said Schauffel, speaking by phone because he was out of town on a business trip. “I’m very excited. I couldn’t be more pleased with the workmanship.”

Schauffel’s home was designed by sustainable design firm LivingHomes, and built in a factory in Rialto in Southern California by a sister company called Plant Prefab.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

A prefabricated home, designed by LivingHomes and built by Plant Prefab, is estimated to be 30 percent less expensive than building from scratch.

While some wildfire victims are scrambling to find contractors to rebuild their homes, these companies are offering a solution that could cut the amount of time it takes to rebuild in half and at a lesser cost, said the builders.

The factory house is located on Dealy Lane near Old Sonoma Road, south of Napa. It includes 1,300 square feet, three bedrooms and two bathrooms, and was designed to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Platinum environmental standards. In addition to the interior of the home, Schauffel, a well-known chef, plans to create a large outdoor cooking and living area. Solar energy will also be added.

Schauffel said he chose LivingHomes because the houses are designed to be very energy efficient and sustainable. The home should also cost about 30 percent less than a ground-built home, he estimated.

They’re also attractive. This new home features modern, clean lines and a sleek exterior. Numerous glass doors and windows create a space that feels open for its size. The modules in Napa came with flooring, finishes, paint and cabinetry already installed.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

A crane lowers a module of a prefabricated home onto its foundation on Dealy Lane on Wednesday morning. The 1,300 square-foot home was designed by LivingHomes and built by Plant Prefab in Rialto, California.

Steve Glenn, CEO of LivingHomes and Plant Prefab, said that when completely finished, this home should cost about $325,000. That does not include Schauffel’s cost to buy the one-acre parcel.

“There’s a shortage of general contractors in the area,” Glenn noted. “We help solve that” with this prefabrication building process.

It’s the first Napa County home that Plant Prefab has installed. However, Plant Prefab and LivingHomes have created a total of more than 60 housing units, said Glenn. Just recently, they installed a multi-story dorm-like unit in Berkeley.

Glenn hopes to install more of these sustainable prefab homes in Northern California. He’s already working with four Sonoma County families impacted by the October wildfires and is offering reduced pricing for others affected.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

A portion of a 1,300 square-foot prefabricated home is lowered into position at a home site on Dealy Lane on Wednesday morning.

On Wednesday, nearby neighbor, Kathy Mahoney, watched during the installation process.

“I’m really pleased” to hear about the ecological aspects of the home, she said. “It’s very green, and that’s just great.”

Craig Schauffel will share the prefabricated home with his mother, Lorraine Schauffel. She was on site on Wednesday to record video to share with her son.

J.L. Sousa, Register 

Workers move a module for a prefabricated home into position at a job site on Dealy Lane on Wednesday morning.

Lorraine Schauffel said it was “awesome” to watch the home modules arrive. The mother and son will probably move in later this summer, after the outdoor area is completed.

She admitted some downsizing would be required before she moved in. “It’s painful,” she said with a laugh. But ultimately, “It’s just stuff.”

Napa County planners vote to expand food waste recycling in Upvalley cities

A composting and recycling facility in the heart of Napa Valley received county Planning Commission approval for changes that will ultimately allow Upvalley residents to recycle food waste.

Some rural neighbors are concerned. Neighbor John Williams said that, while he understands the community need for the facility, neighbors experience the downsides of composting already done there.

“The quality-of-life degradation that comes from that smell is really beyond the pale,” Williams told the Planning Commission on Wednesday morning.

Commissioner Mike Basayne said a composting facility is not necessarily enjoyable for neighbors. Still, he said, Upper Valley Disposal Service is trying to improve necessary infrastructure.

“This facility is not perfect,” Basayne said. “But it is the best and most efficient way to address our community needs.”

Upper Valley Disposal Service opened the facility in 1966 at 1285 Whitehall Lane southeast of St. Helena, a third of a mile west of Highway 29. Here, yard waste from 6,000 homes is combined with grape pomace to create compost for vineyards, the project application said.

The facility started by Bob Pestoni also composts food from restaurants and grocery stores. Upper Valley Disposal Service wants to expand the program so residents in and near Yountville, St. Helena, Calistoga can toss food scraps into their green waste recycling carts, as is done in the city of Napa. That could happen late this year or in early 2019.

Commissioners approved an increase in annual food material composting from 1,950 tons to 4,500 tons. Overall composting remains at 34,000 tons annually.

In addition, they approved construction of a 15,000-square-foot concrete building to enclose the composting blending area. They approved construction of a compressed natural gas refueling pump so the truck fleet can transition away from diesel.

The commission heard concerns from several neighbors in both testimony and in letters.

“The putrid smells that waft over our neighborhood need to be controlled,” neighbors Frank and Beth Leeds wrote to the county. “The dumping of glass late at night needs to be stopped. The loud banging to empty the dump trucks needs to happen during normal business hours.”

Steve Lederer spoke on behalf of the Upper Valley Waste Management Agency, the public agency that oversees the franchise agreement with Upper Valley Disposal Service.

The Whitehall Lane recycling facility in a perfect world it would be located somewhere else, Lederer said. But it is where it is and everyone is doing their best to make the situation work, he said.

St. Helena supported the facility changes. Compressed natural gas trucks will be quieter and pollute less. The proposal for residential food waste recycling is important, Mayor Alan Galbraith wrote.

“By upgrading the facility, our community will be able to meet and comply with changing state regulations requiring organics be removed from all California landfills starting in 2020,” Galbraith wrote.

Calistoga and Yountville also supported Upper Valley Disposal Service’s request. Calistoga Mayor Chris Canning wrote the changes will reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the landfill and mean less garbage in his garbage container.

Commissioner Jeri Hansen asked why all recycling and composting activities couldn’t be done at Upper Valley Disposal Service’s Clover Flat Landfill in the hills near Calistoga.

“Clover Flat isn’t flat,” said Rob Anglin on behalf of Upper Valley Disposal Service. “It’s actually a canyon … We don’t have the space there to accommodate all these activities.”

Some residents said they didn’t receive enough notice about the project and requested the Planning Commission postpone the hearing. Anglin said the company reached out to neighbors. For example, Supervisor Diane Dillon and Lederer held a community meeting in March 2017.

“We’re not sneaky at all here,” Anglin said. “We’re about as sneaky as a freight train.”

Anglin said hearing delays are a problem because Upper Valley Disposal Service must obtain other permits, such as from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The state requires 50 percent of organics to be diverted from landfills by 2020.

The Planning Commission approved the Upper Valley Disposal Service requests by a 4-0 vote. Commissioners Basayne, Anne Cottrell, Joelle Gallagher and Hansen voted “yes,” with commissioner Terry Scott absent.

Napa may ease buffer between marijuana sellers, youth gathering places

In the coming months, Napa may pull in the invisible fences separating schools and youth gathering spots from the places where their elders are primed to sell medical marijuana.

Changes to the city’s ordinance allowing legal cannabis sales are within sight after the City Council on Tuesday asked Napa staff to pen a rewrite to ease its mandatory 1,000-foot buffer between dispensaries and schools, parks, youth clubs and other places where children and teenagers gather.

A revamped law, sought by cannabis advocates and would-be retailers decrying Napa’s current rules as too restrictive, could allow such stores to operate as close as 600 feet to child-friendly locations – the same minimum set by California law – while adding exceptions for even closer-in sites where freeways and waterways block direct walk-in access.

Those changes could mark the first major shift in a dispensary policy that took effect less than two months ago, following years of debate and an earlier law Napa officials rescinded in 2013 for fear of a clash with federal policy that continues to brand marijuana as an illegal drug of abuse. A rewritten ordinance would require approval by the Planning Commission and council members at a later date.

Napa’s belated passage of its cannabis-selling ordinance in November appeared to mark the end of a years-long debate. But the restrictions on where dispensaries can open – only sites zoned for industry, medical offices and office parks are eligible – left some hopeful sellers dissatisfied with the choices available, and city officials have identified only two sites offered by applicants that have met all the conditions.

In supporting a more lenient 600-foot buffer around schools and parks, Councilmember Scott Sedgley went a step further – suggesting that Napa could mark out the minimum not as the crow flies, but by the shortest possible path over actual streets. “(Even) if it’s 1,000 feet, it needs to be 1,000 feet in how you get there – we don’t fly,” he said.

Such an interpretation may never get off the ground, however. After the meeting, City Attorney Michael Barrett warned that state law has no such “path of travel” language in its requirement of buffers around cannabis sellers, and that such an attempt risks placing retailers illegally closer than 600 feet to youth gatherings.

Councilmember Doris Gentry also urged a pullback to a 600-foot buffer, and asked for more natural features such as the Napa River to be accepted as “impenetrable” pedestrian barriers to marijuana stores within that limit.

Even the definition of what a “youth” gathering place truly is seemed troublingly vague to Gentry, pointing to a potential dispensary location on Enterprise Court that – barely – falls afoul of Napa’s current 1,000-foot boundary because it faces a small portion of the Napa Golf Course, where Asylum Slough separates the two.

While the golf course is part of Kennedy Park – a children’s gathering place under the city ordinance – Gentry questioned how many children likely congregate on its fairways and greens.

“How many 3-year-olds play golf?” she quipped. “I know it’s called Kennedy Park, but I can build an apartment and call it Doris’ Park, and that doesn’t make it a park.”

The owner of a property on Jordan Lane warned such ambiguity about “children’s” facilities also threatens his plan to accept a dispensary in what is otherwise an industrial and commercial area far from schools. Chad Williams asked the council whether the nearby Academy of Danse qualifies as a youth center, even though adults also study there. That is a question that could determine whether he can welcome marijuana sales in his own building, which previously housed the Joy Luck House restaurant.

One person giving a red-light signal to opening up more potential sites was Mayor Jill Techel, who announced she would support a continued 1,000-foot minimum as a sign to police officers and educators that she takes seriously the risk of overexposing cannabis products to younger Napans.

“Changing the ordinance to allow seven to 10 dispensaries is problematic to me,” she said of the extra sites an overhauled law potentially would make available. “… It’s a dispensary; it’s not a business that we can receive sales tax from. We moved forward on this as a service, as a way for people to have safe access and to have it in town. Two or three dispensaries is about what I had in mind.”