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Committee recommends closing Yountville and Mt. George schools

An advisory committee on Tuesday recommended that the Napa Valley Unified School District close its Yountville and Mt. George elementary schools after the current school year to save $1 million annually. 

Families attending the Napa area’s two smallest elementary schools may be facing the end of the line for their campuses – but some are holding out hope for their student bodies to make the move to other schools together.

Tuesday night, an advisory committee to the Napa Valley Unified School District voted to recommend closing Yountville Elementary and Mt. George Elementary, in the Coombsville area east of Napa, when the current academic year ends in June 2020. A final decision will rest with NVUSD’s board of education, which is expected to decide Oct. 24 whether to accept the committee’s verdict.

The closures, which would be NVUSD’s first since 2010, are intended to slice $1 million of annual expenses as the district aims to cut $7.2 million of spending through 2022 as falling attendance dries up Napa’s share of per-student funding from the state.

Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti first floated the possibility of campus closures in June, saying quick action is needed to bolster dangerously low fiscal reserves that could invite a state takeover and a loss of local control.

The possibility of shutting down schools aroused vigorous opposition from parents who argued such smaller campuses offer a quality of education and a level of social support unmatched at larger campuses. Foes of the plan have come out in force at district meetings, urging officials to reconsider, but on Tuesday failed to win over a majority of the 11-person advisory team.

“We can drag this through the mud, but we’ll be in the same situation: that the smaller the school, the harder the revenues are,” committee vice chairman Arik Housley, who owns the Ranch Market in Yountville, told an audience that packed the district board room in Napa. “We will not make everybody happy, no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try. And that’s a very hard thing for me to say as a Yountville person.”

Two of the advisers, Andrew Damron and Mt. George teacher Katie Garibaldi, voted against both closure recommendations, saying NVUSD needs to take more time to settle how it will transfer students and teachers elsewhere. “It seems that even though the planning has advanced significantly” in recent weeks, “the information still seems half-baked,” Damron said before the votes.

Responding to speakers who questioned the Napa district’s forecast of declining numbers of school-age children into the next decade – and thus the need to downsize its facilities – Mucetti said the combination of low reserves and declining per-student payouts by California require urgent action to reduce expenses.

“We can’t make decisions today for 10 to 15 years from now,” she told the committee. “If we made decisions for 10 to 15 years out, we wouldn’t be making the best decisions for the kids who are in school today.”

A decision to wind down both schools will be accompanied by another decision for the district – how to redraw the home territories of Napa’s grade schools and, critically for Mt. George and Yountville parents, how to give them top priority in deciding where their children should be educated next.

To nail down those arrangements, the 11-person advisory team – known as a 7-11 committee for its minimum and maximum membership – will meet again Oct. 1 to discuss how to consolidate the two schools with others, and keep as much as possible of their student bodies together after such a move.

A proposal NVUSD shared Tuesday would map the Yountville school’s territory into that of Willow Elementary 7 miles to the south, while merging the Mt. George area into the home ground of the Alta Heights school, a 2-mile drive to the west. The district also can give higher priority to children at Yountville and Mt. George during the open-enrollment process, to improve their chances of joining current classmates at the consolidated schools, officials said.

With possible shutdowns looming, Rob Mangewala, NVUSD’s assistant superintendent of business services, proposed delaying the start of open enrollment – in which parents can apply to shift their children to grade schools outside their own neighborhoods – from Oct. 1 to Oct. 28, after a possible closure vote by the school board.

After advisers voted to recommend the Yountville school’s closure, a note of resignation crept into the voices of several Mt. George parents who spoke to the committee before a similar decision for their campus.

Some of them asked the district to ensure their children can still be educated together even if at a different campus, and asked for a way to preserve Mt. George’s International Baccalaureate (IB) model, which is unique among Napa public schools and emphasizes problem-solving, independent thinking, cultural understanding and second-language instruction.

It was not immediately announced how or when faculty members at Alta Heights or another campus might be trained to teach in a Mt. George-style program.

“What I’m asking is that you advocate for our IB program and for our Mt. George community,” said Mallori Macedo, emphasizing the Coombsville academy’s majority of families who opted in from other parts of Napa. “We chose that school, we chose that family and we chose that community. … We’re here to advocate for our kids; they’re our whole world.”

“We are advocating for our children to stay together as a community, so let’s vote for consolidation instead of closure. Please,” she continued, to the clapping of other school parents.

Meanwhile, other audience members appealed to the NVUSD to spare a Yountville school they called an essential part of its town of fewer than 3,000 – and a campus several miles removed from any others in the district.

“There is going to be a major void losing our school in Yountville,” Jason Hutchings told the committee. “I’m just afraid that by closing this school, we’re going to lose access to that site. It’s no longer going to be park space after school; it’s no longer going to be a learning environment there.”

The NVUSD committee began meeting in August and was asked to consider the futures of the district’s four smallest grade schools by enrollment, all of which averaged 313 or fewer pupils in 2018-19. Later, district staff members recommended keeping open the larger of the four, Alta Heights and West Park, over the 240-student Mt. George and 119-student Yountville schools, both of which enroll more than half their pupils from outside their home boundaries.

The Napa school district’s move toward closing its smallest schools comes in the wake of another austerity-driven decision – its cancellation of American Canyon’s second middle school, which many residents had called a promise made by promoters of a successful school-bond measure in 2016.

NVUSD trustees voted last week to scrap the junior-high campus, citing a leveling-off of population growth in American Canyon and fears a new school’s annual $2.2 million operating cost would drain dollars away from other programs in the district. The school was to have broken ground this year next to the city’s high school.

In backing away from adding a campus in American Canyon, district leaders cited a demographic study indicating the numbers of school-age residents would continue to fall into at least the mid-2020s even when taking future housing construction into account, due to rising prices that have left the Napa Valley increasingly unaffordable to families with children.

NVUSD’s last round of closures in 2010 shut the doors of the rural one-room Wooden Valley schoolhouse along with the Capell Valley and Carneros schools. The Carneros campus found a second life as a home to the Stone Bridge school, but damage from the 2014 earthquake has triggered an ongoing search for another, seismically safer site for the charter academy.

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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.