Yountville Elementary School

Yountville Elementary School.

In a public forum Monday night, the Napa Valley Unified School District outlined a list of cutbacks that may include shuttering two of the smallest schools serving pupils from kindergarten through fifth grade after the 2019-20 school year.

Starting as soon as August, a special committee will review the futures of Yountville, Mt. George, West Park and Alta Heights schools, then recommend whether to consolidate them as part of a package of cutbacks to adjust to a shrinking student body, Superintendent Dr. Rosanna Mucetti told an audience of more than 100 school parents that packed the district’s Napa boardroom for 2 ½ hours.

The announcement shone a light on the conflict between district leaders’ calls for fiscal responsibility to avoid shortfalls like this fiscal year’s $3.1 million gap – and even a potential financial takeover by the state if Napa Valley Unified drains its reserves below 3 percent of its budget – against the pleas of parents to preserve schools they said provide their children a better education and more teacher attention because of their small size.

Several parents, facing the possible need to shift their children to other grade schools in a year’s time, wondered whether closures would simply drive more families to private schools instead and wind up costing NVUSD even more of the state education money based on the number of students.

“What I haven’t heard is what ideas there are to keep those schools open,” said Earl Knecht, whose son is entering second grade at Yountville Elementary School and who is co-president of its parent-teacher association.

“Explain to me, as a parent who wants to send my kid to a school that’s small – give me a reason to stick with this district,” he asked NVUSD officials, echoing concerns shared by parents of Mt. George Elementary pupils during a Thursday board meeting.

Mucetti said the district is not leaning toward keeping open specific campuses and closing others, and a decision on the four sites ultimately would fall to NVUSD’s seven-member board of education. A 2019-20 budget, slated for passage Thursday by the board, would balance NVUSD’s finances and begin building back its reserve through a variety of steps, which would include teacher and staff reductions and eliminating the seven-period schedule at middle schools.

But Mucetti declared that as declining head counts further shrink California’s per-student funding to the district into the mid-2020s – and as families with children struggle with ever-rising home prices in Napa – not downsizing to fewer campuses could lead to even less palatable choices like increased class sizes, program cuts or teacher salary freezes, which she predicted would harm students at schools beyond those that close their doors.

“It’s not about being alarmist, or ringing a fire bell around the topic, (but) I felt it important to come out in advance of the concept and share the what and the why,” she said, pointing to district reserves that have dwindled from 8 to 3.6 percent in five years. … “If we don’t take that strategy, we’ll have to take others.”

Winding down two grade schools would reduce the Napa district’s expenses by $1 million a year, she estimated.

Schools with smaller student bodies burden NVUSD finances because many of their costs remain the same as at larger campuses, according to Mucetti. She estimated fixed expenses of about $500,000 annually for a principal, staff, food service, maintenance and other necessities, regardless of enrollment. Furthermore, she added, the campuses with lower enrollment tend to be on smaller sites where expansion is difficult.

The work of deciding the future of smaller grade schools will fall to a 7-11 committee, so named for its minimum and maximum number of members. NVUSD will take applications for the committee, which California law requires to include a variety of stakeholders including parents, teachers, administrators, property owners and others.

The district board is tentatively scheduled to choose committee members in August before the group holds at least four meetings through about October, all of which will be open to the public. Members would take enrollment numbers, areas served by the schools, finances and facilities into account before recommending closures to the NVUSD board, which would make the final decision.

While state law does not specifically require such a special committee to include representatives of all schools facing potential closure at the same time, the district board could choose members with ties to the four campuses, according to Mike Pearson, NVUSD’s facilities director.

The schedule for deciding the future of Napa’s smaller grade schools is meant to give parents time to shift children to other campuses through the district’s open-enrollment period in the fall, should any schools be closed, according to Paul Disario, interim assistant superintendent for business services.

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Public Safety 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.