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No. 5 story of 2019: Closures, cancellations and budget woes at Napa school district
Top Stories of 2019: No. 5

No. 5 story of 2019: Closures, cancellations and budget woes at Napa school district

From the Napa Valley Register's Top 10 stories of 2019 series

For most California public schools, fewer young people equals less money from the state – and that unforgiving equation was at the heart of a difficult year in the Napa Valley Unified School District.

Falling enrollment and the effects of deficit spending led school district leaders toward a succession of unpopular moves that included closing two elementary schools at the end of this school year, and canceling a new junior high school long sought by parents in American Canyon.

Meanwhile, a belt-tightening budget eliminated teacher and staff positions as NVUSD worked to close off a $3.1 million shortfall, and preventing a depletion of reserve funds that could invite a state takeover of the district’s finances.

“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,” district Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti said in June about NVUSD’s fiscal stress and the austerity steps to come – steps she said educators must take to avoid larger class sizes, program cuts or teacher salary freezes that could harm students across the district. “If we don’t take that strategy, we’ll have to take others.”

The seemingly immovable barrier for NVUSD is a contracting pool of school-age children and teenagers, in large part because of declining birth rates and soaring housing costs that have pushed average resale prices well past $600,000, rental vacancies less than 2 percent, and any sort of housing out of many families’ grasp.

NVUSD officials have predicted shrinking enrollment deep into the new decade, from just under 18,000 currently to less than 16,000 by 2026. That fall-off, in turn, would tighten the flow of state education funds, which for Napa and most other districts is paid out at a fixed rate per student.

By the end of summer, this turbulent financial picture convinced school district leaders and board members convinced that American Canyon’s second middle school – which was to have broken ground in 2019 – had become an unaffordable luxury. Trustees in September voted to kill the project, despite objections from some residents who called a new school in the south county an implicit campaign promise that helped NVUSD win voter support for a $268 million construction bond measure in 2016.

Trustee David Gracia was sympathetic but ultimately firm in supporting the cancellation, warning the district could not run a new school without shortchanging existing ones.

“Part of what that promise was based on was that enrollment would continue to increase, but that assumption hasn’t borne itself out,” he said. “If we built this school, it would be fiscally irresponsible, because we cannot afford to operate it.”

Ultimately, NVUSD decided that its two smallest campuses also were unsustainable. After four months of studies and often acrimonious public hearings, the board voted to shut down the Yountville and Mt. George elementary schools after June 2020, in a bid to shave $1 million off annual expenses. The shutdowns will be the district’s first since 2010, when the Carneros, Wooden Valley and Capell Valley grade schools closed at the tail end of the Great Recession.

Parents determined not to let go of their children’s schools without a fight organized in defense of both campuses – for what they called the nurturing atmosphere of smaller student bodies (some 240 children at Mt. George and less than half that in Yountville), as well as Mt. George’s distinctive International Baccalaureate curriculum emphasizing second languages and cultural understanding.

“You are looking at a roomful of people who love their schools,” Holly Moore, one of numerous parents of Mt. George pupils to pack NVUSD’s meeting hall during the debates, told trustees before their final vote Oct. 24. “These are more than schools to them; these are like our families, our second homes. You’d have to experience it to understand it. I understand this is a business, but your business is about children, and children need nurturing.”

But with school district funds limited and shrinking, trustees concluded they had no choice but to safeguard those resources for the thousands of pupils elsewhere in Napa and American Canyon. “It is our job to advocate for your children – along with 16,000 other children, and in an equitable fashion,” said Robin Jankiewicz.

Howard Yune's memorable stories from 2019

These are the five Register stories I feel had the most impact, or touched people most deeply, in 2019.

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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.

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