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A team of advisers on Tuesday began to grapple with the future of smaller elementary schools that Napa education officials say they can no longer afford – even as a group of parents again argued their children cannot afford to lose the unique atmosphere of a tight-knit campus.

Members of the Napa Valley Unified School District laid out statistics pointing to a steady enrollment decline – intensifying in the earliest grades – driven by the Bay Area housing shortage that has made Napa largely unaffordable for families with young children.

The forecast of shrinking student rosters well into the 2020s dominated the opening meeting of an 11-member committee that will recommend whether to close two of the district’s four grade schools with the lowest enrollment – Yountville Elementary, Mt. George, Alta Heights and West Park – as per-student payments from the state continue to fall.

But warnings of deepening deficits and even a state takeover of school finances fell on deaf ears to audience members determined to preserve campuses they said offer a quality of education beyond price.

“Small schools matter; tight-knit communities matter; people who care about our kids matter,” said Mallori Macedo, the mother of two Mt. George students, before a near-capacity audience at district headquarters in Napa. “Mt. George was our choice and it will continue to be my family’s choice for as long as (NVUSD) lets us.”

The first of four scheduled meetings of the advisory team – known as a 7-11 committee for its minimum and maximum number of members – showed the conflict between families seeking to keep small-campus options available, and a school district caught between growing deficits and a shrinking population of the young.

Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti first announced in June the possibility of consolidating the four smallest NVUSD schools teaching children from kindergarten through the fifth grade, a step she estimated would save $1 million a year. Yountville’s enrollment totaled 119 students in 2018-19, compared to 240 for Mt. George, 295 at Alta Heights and 313 at West Park.

Such closures would join a host of other cost-saving measures intended to save $7.2 million over the next two years, including teacher and staff reductions and the elimination of a seven-period schedule at middle schools. Without such steps, NVUSD’s reserves could dip dangerously close to 3 percent of the district budget, a level below which California could take control of its finances.

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“If we decide to kick this can down the road, you will have a commission telling us what to do,” she said.

Consultants forecast a long-term enrollment slide driven by falling birthrates and increasingly costly housing that pushes more families out of the district into more affordable communities. Non-charter-school enrollment in Napa and Yountville, which has declined from 12,829 in 2014-15 to 12,214 in 2018-19, is expected to drop to 10,846 by 2025-26 even with future housing construction taken into account, said Robb Murray of Jack Schreder & Associates, a Sacramento educational consultancy.

While Napa has seen increased construction or approval of high-density housing in recent years, the largest such projects – such as the 283 apartments of The Braydon west of Soscol Avenue – are outside the boundaries of the district’s four smallest grade schools, Murray told the committee. All except West Park already draw a majority of their students from outside their vicinity, placed there by parents through NVUSD’s open-enrollment process.

Enrollment drop-offs through 2023-24 were projected to be sharper at Yountville and Mt. George: from last school year’s 119 to 100 at the former, and from 240 to 191 at the latter. Alta Heights was predicted to see its enrollment drop from 295 to 267, and West Park from 313 to 286, over the same five-year period.

In the face of such forecasts, a succession of school parents still urged NVUSD not to wind down campuses they asserted are valuable to the success of children who may not thrive at Napa’s larger campuses.

“If you look around these small schools, you know these are people who care,” Megan Clark, a psychologist with two children attending Mt. George, said of the four schools’ higher faculty-to-student ratios and active parents’ groups. “… This is what fosters mental health and healthy kids. Going to Snow or Shearer, that is not healthy.”

“You’re looking at numbers, but you haven’t looked at culture,” added Napa County Supervisor Belia Ramos, whose district includes Mt. George and Alta Heights. “We need to look at culture as part of the equation. You can’t put a number on that, but you need to put a value to that.”

Members of the special committee include former Napa High School principal Barb Franco, Mt. George teacher Katie Garibaldi and Canyon Oaks Elementary principal Kay Vang, as well as Andrew Damron, Wendi Piscia, Jaime Magana, Eric Knight, Arvind Nischal, Laura Miller, Arik Housley and Whitney Farris. Three more public meetings are scheduled in September and October.

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City of Napa/Town of Yountville Reporter

Howard Yune covers the city of Napa and the town of Yountville. 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.