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Yountville and Mt. George schools

An advisory committee of the Napa Valley Unified School District has called for merging Yountville Elementary School students into the Willow school, and Mt. George Elementary students into the Alta Heights campus, should the school board vote Oct. 24 to close the two campuses. The shutdowns would take effect after the school year ends in June.

Napa parents facing the potential shutdown of their children’s elementary schools are appealing to school district leaders to keep two campuses operating, a week before a scheduled decision on their futures.

Board members for the Napa Valley Unified School District on Tuesday began grappling with a plan to close the Yountville and Mt. George elementary schools after the current academic year ends in June – a step recommended by an advisory team to save the district about $1 million a year amid deepening fiscal woes and falling attendance. The board is scheduled to vote on the closures Oct. 24.

Over the past month, the volunteer committee has supported closing the campuses, which have the smallest enrollments among NVUSD grade schools. Student bodies would be shifted to other schools, Yountville students to Willow Elementary 7 miles south and Mt. George students to Alta Heights 2 miles west. (Parents also could seek to place children at other campuses through the district’s open-enrollment system starting later this month.)

The closures would be the latest in a string of cost-saving measures for NVUSD as it seeks to shave $7.2 million in expenses through 2022. Enrollment declines are expected to continue into the mid-2020s and squeeze NVUSD’s per-student funding from California. District reserves have dwindled close to the 3 percent level that could allow the state to take over its finances for insolvency.

However, a group of parents who have resisted the shutdowns for months again came to the defense of the schools – particularly Mt. George, where a large share of families transfer into the Coombsville campus for its International Baccalaureate teaching model that emphasizes cultural understanding, second languages and independent thinking. Shutting down a distinctive program with a nurturing atmosphere risks driving many pupils into private schools and out of the district altogether, several speakers argued.

“We personally drove 25 minutes one way for the community, the staff, the faculty, but most importantly for the international focus of the IB program,” said Mallori Macedo, the mother of two Mt. George pupils. “I realize our financial risk; what I don’t understand is how closing Mt. George, at a savings of $407,000 a year, will help solve our budget crisis.”

A Mt. George teacher who cast the advisory committee’s only votes against winding down her school again spoke out, telling trustees the district has not properly thought out school closures and has uncritically accepted financial and enrollment forecasts used to support them.

“This process has been very rushed and hasn’t given us time to explore every single option,” said Katie Garibaldi, one of the committee’s 11 members. “Ask tougher questions and demand answers before you choose to eradicate these small school communities.”

While board members asked the district staff various questions about the potential closures, most appeared to keep their opinions to themselves for the time being. But David Gracia expressed sympathy for those with children at Mt. George and its IB program, suggesting that NVUSD consider preserving it and instead dropping the West Park Elementary School – one of two other campuses, along with Alta Heights, the advisory committee also had considered recommending for closure.

However, Gracia considered Yountville’s school community too small to have a viable future, despite the expressions of support for it in recent months. “We’ve heard a lot about how important the school is to the community, but I have to do what’s best for the students of NVUSD,” he said.

The very need to discuss which grade schools to close is the fruit of years of land-use decisions – especially resistance to dense multifamily development – that have cut off the growth of affordable housing that would have allowed Napa’s lower-wage workers to raise their families there, according to trustee Cindy Watter.

“This is all coming around because our community is changing; people with young children cannot afford to live here,” she said. It’s not just Napa – all over the state it’s been happening. I sat on the City Council (from 1992 to 1997) and saw construction decisions made that favored the wealthy and the retired; lots of us saw it coming and couldn’t stop it.”

Watter also dismissed some parents’ assertions that educators should avoid any closures and see if new home construction will attract more families to Napa, predicting that most such housing will be too costly to have an effect on school enrollment.

“People are writing to me about Napa Pipe all the time, but there is no guarantee that families with children will live in those houses,” she said. “We’re getting grayer, and this is the reality we are living with.”

District trustees earlier cited falling enrollment in their September decision to cancel a second middle school in American Canyon, which was to have broken ground this year.

NVUSD has delayed the start of its open enrollment process, through which parents apply to move younger children to grade schools outside their home territory, from Oct. 1 to Oct. 28 to allow families to seek transfers if their local schools are closed.

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You can reach Howard Yune at 707-256-2214 or hyune@napanews.com

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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.