Some rural schools going broke as families leave

The Associated Press
Monday October 07, 2002

OCCIDENTAL – Despite overall population growth in this pastoral, wealthy Sonoma County community, the number of school-age children is dwindling, and its schools are going broke. 

Public schools derive funds based on the number of students they serve. Communities throughout the state that attract large numbers of rich and childless homeowners are facing similar budget crunches that force them to struggle to stay open for the children who remain as working-class families are pushed out by home prices that start near $300,000. 

School statistics show enrollment fell 13 percent in grades kindergarten through five and 9 percent in grades six through eight during the 2000/2001 school year. Officials estimate an additional 4 percent drop among younger pupils and a drop of nearly 15 percent for grades six through eight this school year. 

“From the perspective of public education, the per-capita income doesn’t make for up for the drop in the school-age population,” said Jane McDonough, the superintendent of the Harmony Union School District. 

Western Sonoma County, north of San Francisco, once was home to dairy farmers, hippies and agricultural workers. McDonough said such residents have been displaced largely by childless couples who are snapping up woodsy, 10-acre lots. 

As a result, Harmony Union has cut three full-time teachers, one administrative position and has restricted the schedules of remaining staff. McDonough added it might become necessary to close one of the district’s two schools and consolidate elementary and middle school classes onto one campus. 

McDonough said deficit spending on cash reserves should keep the schools running through 2005. After that, the district could boost its fund-raising, apply for more grants and possibly sell a decommissioned school to developers, she said. 

Jarold Warren, interim superintendent for the neighboring Sebastopol Union School District, said every West County school district is competing for students. 

Diana Rich, a mother with two sons enrolled in the Sebastopol Union School District, said she’s considered private school but wants her children to learn with a cross-section of the community. 

“We have great teachers and very involved parents here. But if you can’t get new little kids enrolled, you’re ultimately concerned about the survivability of the schools,” Rich said. “You’re uncomfortable contemplating the future.”