New American Canyon Middle School (copy)

This rendering shows the planned American Canyon middle school that had been slated to begin construction this summer. District finances have put the project at risk.

AMERICAN CANYON — Current and projected declines in Napa Valley Unified School District enrollment could cost American Canyon a new middle school that was to break ground this summer, with still more district budget cuts possible.

The school district has money to build the school from the 2016 Measure H bond and the project was moving full steam ahead early this year. But Superintendent Rosanna Mucetti on Monday said the district doesn’t have the $2.2 million needed annually to run the school, not without cutting programs.

Mucetti tied the American Canyon situation to larger district budget challenges. The district’s reserve of 3.6 percent is close to the state-mandated 3 percent it must maintain to avoid the possibility of state receivership and the loss of local control, she said.

“NVUSD right now is on the cusp of that potential reality, like many of our district counterparts in the state of California that are suffering from declining enrollment,” Mucetti said.

She talked about the planned, second American Canyon middle school and the district budget situation during a community meeting Tuesday night in the American Canyon High School library. About 75 people attended a session that lasted close to three hours, with Mucetti often stopping to take questions from skeptical listeners.

Mucetti said she’ll recommend to the district Board of Education that it reconsider the construction of the middle school. That idea proved unpopular with some in her American Canyon audience, with some saying they voted for Measure H because a new middle school was promised.

One resident who worked to help pass Measure H told Mucetti this sudden turn of events seems like a “betrayal.” Another who did phone banking for Measure H called it “a slap in the face.”

“Who doesn’t want a brand-new, beautiful facility in the community that alleviates what feels like tremendous overcrowding,” Mucetti said. “Specific promises like this in a bond campaign are risky for that very reason.”

Mucetti, who wasn’t with the district at the time of the Measure H campaign, said she understands people’s frustration. She also stood her ground.

“It could be very irresponsible to build that school despite the fact a political promise was made,” she said.

Mucetti explained that the district receives state money based on how many students it has. Enrollment has fallen from about 18,000 in 2016-17 to about 17,500 and is expected to be down to 16,000 by 2025-26. Each student nets the district $10,000 from the state.

“We are currently in a very, very aggressive decline,” Mucetti said. “That cannot be denied and that cannot be ignored.”

Other financial factors are also in play, such as rising pension costs mandated by the state. The district recently cut $7 million because it can no longer use reserves to mask the financial situation, she said.

Among other responses, the district has begun demanding that the three charter schools it oversees pay market rates for the school facilities they rent from the district.

Charter schools face their own financial challenges. River School in Napa discovered it can no longer afford being a charter school, Mucetti said. It is returning to the district as of July 1 after being a charter school since 1995.

The district could also take such steps as try to attract more interdistrict transfers, make certain the number of teachers is in proportion to the number of students and avoid large variances in the maximum class sizes.

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“I didn’t sign up to take the district into fiscal insolvency,” Mucetti said.

Some in Mucetti’s audience remained skeptical that enrollment in American Canyon will decline. After all, American Canyon has been a hotbed of Napa County growth and has the big, Watson Ranch community in the works.

Mucetti said Watson Ranch is included in the growth projections. Still, the projections show overall American Canyon enrollment falling from 4,350 in 2016-17 to 4,050 by 2025-26. More students are predicted to be leaving than coming in.

The existing American Canyon Middle School has 1,103 students and was built for 700 students. It has handled the extra students by having portables. Enrollment there is projected hover around the 1,000 range in coming years.

“We don’t build new schools for 300 kids,” Mucetti said.

She said it might be easier to tell people in the room that the new middle school will be built. Then she would be coming back in a few months to talk about making $2.2 million in budget cuts to cover the operational costs.

“That would be felt in every other school in American Canyon, trust me,” Mucetti said.

Resident Jason Kishineff, who attended the meeting, wasn’t convinced. The next day, he released a Facebook message urging residents to contact the district Board of Education to voice their displeasure.

“The problem is that they show two years of decline and the rest is just prediction, which clearly does not factor in growth from the new apartments at American Canyon and Highway 29, Watson Ranch (which will add more than 1200 new units) or the Broadway specific plan,” Kishineff wrote.

Some audience members noted that the cost to build a new middle school will likely rise with delays.

Also, district officials said they can’t bank the Measure H bond money to build the school at some point in the distant future, if enrollment unexpectedly picks up. The Measure H bond sale money is to be used in three years.

District Executive Director of Facilities Maintenance and Operations Mike Pearson told the audience ways the Measure H money might be spent if no new middle school is built. The existing American Canyon Middle School and Donaldson Way Elementary School could be renovated, he said.

The district would have backup plans for an unexpected American Canyon enrollment uptick. One idea is to change the planned Watson Ranch elementary school to include seventh and eighth grades. Mucetti pointed out that American Canyon High School has 500 vacant seats.

The new, second American Canyon middle school has been targeted for 17.5 acres next to American Canyon High School. The district did an environmental impact report for the project that looked at such issues as traffic. Pearson during a January community meeting in American Canyon said the new school could open as soon as August 2020.

Now the question is whether it will even be built.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.