Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti spent a lot of her first 90 days on the job after taking over the Napa Valley Unified School District in July by listening and learning from parents, staff and others about her new district.
Last week alone she got an earful from parents and community members in Napa and American Canyon during town halls she hosted at local high schools.
The meetings were well attended and cordial, but raised a host of concerns ranging from losing electives and other budget related matters to the impacts of open enrollment and the district’s response to parent complaints.
NVUSD has been losing students and funding the past several years, leading to repeated budget deficits and cutbacks.
Mucetti said the high school town halls were important so she could “tune in” to the important issues shared by the NVUSD community.
“I want people to know I’m extremely approachable,” Mucetti told about 70 people gathered in the Napa High School Library on Sept. 24.
She assured parents that she wants NVUSD “to be the best school district,” adding that it has “pockets” of excellence.
But she insisted changes are in store in order to make improvements and bring about “growth” in enrollment and in other ways.
Mucetti inherited a district that has experienced declining enrollment since 2015 as well as budget shortfalls brought on by the student losses, rising pension costs and other factors.
The superintendent warned that her district cannot solve its fiscal problems by cuts alone. Such reductions can over time “gut” programs and only weaken things overall, and even make the enrollment decline worse.
“Declining enrollment can cause a district to cannibalize itself,” Mucetti told American Canyon parents on Sept. 26, resulting in budget cuts that “self sabotage” a district.
What’s needed is an “enrollment stabilization” plan, plus “strategic thinking” by district leadership and its Board of Education. Mucetti said they are working on a strategic plan that trustees will vote on in December.
She promised those at the American Canyon meeting: “I won’t allow declining enrollment to kill us,” adding, “I will die trying” to fix things.
Once parents started asking questions of the superintendent, it became clear what the dominant concern was in American Canyon: losing the seventh period.
American Canyon High School, New Tech High School in Napa, and the middle schools in NVUSD offer a seventh period so students can take electives. Parents and teachers have praised the extra time slot for students. It is important for staff as well because it provides more time for professional development and class preparation.
Last year, district leaders talked about axing the seventh period to save money. That talk alarmed people in American Canyon.
Teacher Elizabeth Goff told Mucetti the seventh period “makes your school better” because it gives students a chance to find their passion and enjoy studying what they love.
Parent after parent also got up and talked about how they wanted the district to keep the seventh period. For American Canyon, whose schools are largely full and not suffering enrollment declines, any cost-cutting to important offerings makes no sense.
“Why are we as a school that’s not declining being punished?” asked an ACHS parent of Mucetti.
The superintendent explained the rationale for proposing to eliminate the seventh period from the district’s point of view. It requires 43 additional full-time teachers across the district, at a cost of about $3 million annually.
Having said that, Mucetti acknowledged the seventh period is a “hot topic” in American Canyon.
“I get it, it’s a no-brainer,” she said. Mucetti said if the budget is “tight again,” the district will need to figure out how to run “a robust program” in a “less cost prohibited way” without compromising the seventh period.
She added there will be more meetings in American Canyon in the near future on this topic.
At Napa High, parents raised different concerns.
Some of their questions and remarks made it apparent there are still lingering sore feelings about the decision to do away with the school’s longtime mascot name and logo — the Indian — and how the district and school handled the football hazing controversy.
One parent who frequently spoke out about the hazing punishments that were handed down, including student expulsions, said formal complaints by parents and community members were often not addressed.
Mucetti responded by saying staff and leadership have undergone complaint response training. The process for doing so had “gotten muddy” in recent years, demanding improvements by the district, she said.
“We’re going to work on it for sure,” said Mucetti.
Another parent complained that finding the district’s annual budget online was challenging, and when she did find it, the documents and spreadsheets were “quite unreadable.”
Other parents expressed concerns about inequities between schools in Napa, and how some are filled with students from low-income families struggling to get by. They also wondered if the district’s open enrollment policy had made things worse by making it easy for parents to send their child to a school other than the one in their neighborhood.
Mucetti did not directly address all concerns that came up at the meeting. She said at the outset that she wanted to avoid using too much time in the town hall for “back and forth” between her and parents. She promised all questions and issues were being logged and would be addressed at some point.
The Napa High gathering seemed OK with this decision, and some said they were willing to give Mucetti time to make changes.
One parent who was critical of the former superintendent, Patrick Sweeney, and was involved in the unsuccessful attempt to recall the school board, said Mucetti “is new and you gotta give her a chance.”