Mt. George Elementary School

The Mustang mascot at Mt. George Elementary School in east Napa.

Early next week, families with children attending four of Napa’s smallest elementary schools will learn what the future may hold for their campuses as the public school system tries to fight its way out of a $3 million deficit.

But on Thursday, some parents, rather than wait, made their case to the school board why one campus should stay open amid a district’s fiscal stress.

On a night when the Napa Valley Unified School District detailed a budget meant to cut costs amid sliding enrollment and state funding, nearly a dozen residents made often heartfelt pleas to the school board to avoid one proposed remedy: the shutdown of grade schools with fewer than 300 pupils, including Mt. George Elementary School east of Napa.

District leaders have called the cost of providing faculty and staff to serve small student bodies a financial drag on a school system that has drawn down its money reserves near a level that could trigger a state takeover of its finances.

Mt. George is one of four Napa-area schools for kindergarten through fifth grade — others include Yountville, West Park and Alta Heights — whose future NVUSD will address at a special meeting Monday at district headquarters. The forum will begin at 6 p.m. and be livestreamed on the district website nvusd.org, as well as on YouTube.

But a group of local parents instead saw a unique level of educational quality and nurturing they said will be irreplaceable if Mt. George shuts its doors — and which some declared would lead them to withdraw their children from NVUSD altogether if that option is taken away.

“Parents like us will send our kids to private school, which only lowers enrollment in the district,” Sabrina Wolfson told board members in one of several public comments capped by audience cheers.

Another Napan, Natasha Engering-Ward, saw no clear substitute for her children should they lose access not only to Mt. George’s high faculty-to-child ratio but its unique International Baccalaureate model, which focuses on independent thinking and problem-solving as well as second-language instruction and inter-cultural understanding.

Other parents asked the district not to wind down a school they said better prepares children academically than others in Napa. “Closing a highly productive school in favor of schools that are less productive may not be the best use of our resources,” said Peter Bartlett.

Parents’ push to preserve Mount George led off a board meeting in which district officials detailed their 2019-20 budget, which forecasts turning the current year’s multimillion-dollar shortfall into a balanced spreadsheet that will add to reserves for the first time in at least half a decade — increasing the cushion from 3.6 to 4 percent of the budget.

California school districts that see their reserves slip below 3 percent are at risk of being declared insolvent by the state, and losing local control of spending.

But in an email sent to district parents earlier this month, Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti warned that more steps are needed to cope with a systemic financial crunch caused by a steady decline in average daily attendance, on which California bases its per-student payouts to school districts. Napa Valley Unified expects its enrollment in Napa, American Canyon and Yountville to shrink from nearly 18,000 this year to below 16,000 by 2026.

“Our budget (for the new fiscal year) is balanced, but that’s contingent on a set of assumptions that will require a series of hard decisions,” Mucetti said at the meeting.

Possible steps detailed by Mucetti and built into the budget’s assumptions include dropping 60 teaching positions and reducing district headquarters staff over three years, shrinking the food-service staff and dropping the seven-period schedule at middle schools. In May, the district, citing the fall-off in enrollment, announced it may hold off on a second American Canyon middle school that was to break ground later this year.

NVUSD also may seek relief from voters in the November 2020 election, by pursuing either a parcel tax to fund school programs or a bond to pay for facilities.

But reducing the number of schools was the most fraught prospects for the coming years, something board president Jose Hurtado readily acknowledged to parents in the audience.

“The hardest thing for this board to do is to close a school, for any reason,” said Hurtado, who was on the NVUSD board when the district shuttered the Carneros, Capell Valley and the one-room Wooden Valley schools in 2010.

“Please don’t think this is an easy thing to do. There’s almost 18,000 students we’re responsible for and we treasure every one of those students. Please don’t think that we’re not looking under every rock, every corner, every book for money someone might have stashed in the library.”

Napa Valley Unified’s new budget will go to the board for final approval June 20.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.