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Yountville and Mt. George schools

An advisory committee of the Napa Valley Unified School District on Tuesday 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.

If Napa’s school district shuts down its two smallest elementary schools next summer, their students will have the chance to move to another campus as a group.

Two weeks after it recommended closing the Yountville and Mt. George schools, a special committee of the Napa Valley Unified School District on Tuesday voted to support merging both schools’ territories with those of the nearest schools teaching kindergarten through the fifth grade. The consolidation would take effect after this school year and combine Yountville’s zone with that of Willow Elementary 7 miles south, and Mt. George’s with that of Alta Heights Elementary 2 miles west.

NVUSD’s board of education is scheduled to vote on approving the closures Oct. 24.

The school closures, which would be NVUSD’s first in a decade, are intended to save the district $1 million a year and contribute toward $7.2 million of savings through 2022.

Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti has called the cutbacks necessary to bolster the district’s financial reserves, which have drifted near the 3 percent level that puts California public school systems at risk of a state takeover and the loss of local control.

Facing a projected long-term enrollment decline as birthrates drop and housing costs increase, NVUSD already has canceled a second middle school planned for American Canyon and cut 60 teaching positions, as well as reducing food-service staffing and eliminating the seventh period at middle schools.

The district has forecast enrollment to fall from nearly 18,000 students to fewer than 16,000 by the mid-2020s, reducing the per-student funding it receives from the state.

“It takes a true leader to do what’s right even when it’s not popular,” said the 11-member committee’s vice chairman, Arik Housley. “I’m not making friends with what I’m doing, but we have to say that this is a hard transition, and sometimes hard transitions come out in good ways. It feels like ripping a Band-Aid off, but it feels that way sometimes, and that’s because of the financial situation we find ourselves in.”

In supporting the combination of school territories, the committee endorsed shifting children from their old campuses to their new ones by default – regardless of residency – thus bypassing the need for parents to enter NVUSD’s open-enrollment program and request their children be transferred to a grade school outside of their home neighborhood.

The automatic transfer may be a key to keeping together as much of the Yountville and Mt. George student bodies as possible after the closures, as more than half the students at each campus live outside its surrounding area.

Because of the prospects of closing two schools, the school district has postponed the start of open enrollment from the start of this month to Oct. 28, with families able to file transfer requests through Nov. 29. Officials announced that current students – or children set to enter kindergarten in August 2020 – who live in Yountville or the Mt. George territory east of Napa will be granted higher priority for transfers to other campuses.

Still uncertain is the future of Mt. George’s International Baccalaureate (IB) program, a teaching model many parents have cited as a reason for transferring their children into the campus. Certification to teach the program – which focuses on problem-solving, independent thinking, cultural understanding and learning second languages – cannot be transferred from one school to another, and building a Mt. George-style model for Alta Heights teachers would require about two years before that school can earn its own certificate, according to Katie Garibaldi, a Mt. George teacher and committee member.

The advisers’ report to the district board – which will be published Friday ahead of the agency’s Oct. 10 meeting – will recommend that a post-merger Alta Heights school look into different instructional options, including an IB program.

Families also have the option to transfer their grade-school children to the Bel Aire Park Magnet School, the Napa district’s other campus teaching to the IB model.

With a final school board decision barely three weeks away, Mt. George parents have begun speaking with individual trustees and arranging campus tours in an effort to keep the school open, according to Mallori Macedo, the mother of two Mt. George students.

In contrast with three previous meetings in which energized school parents packed the NVUSD boardroom to oppose shutting down campuses, about a quarter of the seats were empty for Tuesday’s 3 ½-hour meeting as the discussion turned toward life after Yountville and Mt. George’s potential closures. But a few audience members kept up their opposition even as district leaders prepared for life with two fewer schools.

“This process has seemed shoddy, half-baked and definitely not kosher,” Jason Hutchings told the committee. He questioned why NVUSD did not consider merging the Yountville and Mt. George schools with each other instead of other campuses. “It’s not fair that the district hasn’t given you more time.”

Garibaldi, the Mt. George teacher, cast the only dissenting vote against supporting the school mergers. “I feel the plans are not settled, and that’s unsettling to both our (school) communities,” she said.

One of her colleagues showed sympathy for parents who may have to move their children to a new school next summer, but stood firm on the school district’s need to get its finances in order after several years of deficits.

“For the parents at Mt. George and Yountville, it’s been a very difficult process to support closing schools,” said committee member Eric Knight, a former Yountville councilmember whose three daughters all attended the town school. “What I’ve learned is there’s been challenges the district allowed to go by for many years. … It seems like a shortened process, but there’s a need for immediacy to be concerned about the district.”

After convening in August, the advisory team – known as a 7-11 committee for its minimum and maximum number of members – met four times to study the futures of NVUSD’s four smallest grade schools by enrollment, all of which averaged 313 or fewer pupils in 2018-19. The volunteer group recommended preserving the Alta Heights and West Park schools over the two smaller campuses at Mt. George, with 240 students, and Yountville with 119.

Another one or two meetings for the committee are likely before the district’s Christmas holiday break to consider how to dispose of the Mt. George and Yountville properties should those schools close, said Mucetti. Reuse of those lands would not be immediate, since the campuses are zoned exclusively for educational use and would require city or county rezoning before any housing or commercial redevelopment.

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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.