Responding to years of financial pressure worsened by declining enrollment, Santa Rosa school trustees are pushing ahead with a study on consolidating ten school districts into one.
The proposal is almost certain to drum up controversy over fears of a loss of local control and the possibility of school closures.
That, and a re-naming controversy raised much ire during a recent school closure and consolidation in west Sonoma County that continues generating disagreement and anger to this day.
"That entire process was managed so very poorly by most of the members of the West County High School Board and their previous superintendent. There was a lack of transparency and communication and an overall unwillingness to work with and truly hear our community. It was painful, it was awful and it's all on Youtube if you'd like to check it out."
Forestville resident Heather Dale Best told the county Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, still bitter about how El Molino and Analy high schools were combined.
In Santa Rosa, a preliminary study projected full consolidation would eventually save almost $45 a year, yet cause an immediate budgetary hole of more than $23 million.
The long term slide in the number of children in the county lies at the base of the conundrum. Enrollment has dropped 16 percent over the last four years, according to the Sonoma County Office of Education. With a slightly larger drop projected by the end of the decade, and funding mainly tied to attendance, that's a problem.
At a meeting earlier this month, Omar Medina, vice president of the board of trustees, dismissed two alternatives aimed at maximizing funding, which would have formed two districts.
"I felt a lot of segregation in our community and a lot of it comes from our school district. And to all be combined as one, it's more than just about the financial perspective."
Some of the small local districts receive more money as property within their borders generate more property tax revenue. A few other small districts receive extra money from Sacramento because they serve students who are English language learners or qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. If districts were combined, both of those sources would evaporate as a combined district would meet neither metric.
Medina told colleagues a single district was worth studying as the overall benefits may outweigh the trade offs.
"The second part of the study is about the educational outcomes that could be achieved through that, but it's also building a stronger, unified community."
If a plan is eventually adopted, it would be years away. Superintendents and other administrators would be cut loose, and a new school board would be elected, tasked with exploring school closures.
Medina expects contentiousness, rather than smooth sailing.
"I know that this process will be very divisive, but to me it's about what provides equity at a larger level and we could have greater and better educational outcomes for our students."
The process requires a petition signed by a majority of members of each school board, a petition signed by at least a quarter of registered voters and approval by a government body.