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WatchSonoma Watch

Piner Elementary to close in June

By KERRY BENEFIELD and BRETT WILKISON

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Two weeks ago, Piner Elementary School received California’s Title 1 Academic Achievement Award for its work educating students toward proficiency standards.

This week, the northwest Santa Rosa school received word that it will close at the end of the school year, the victim of school budget cuts and declining enrollment, problems plaguing districts throughout Sonoma County.
“I have been in the district 32 years, it’s pretty emotional,” said Marion Guillen, superintendent of the Piner-Olivet School District.
It marks the second school closure announcement in Sonoma County this week. Mountain Shadows Middle School in Cotati-Rohnert Park will close for good in June.
Piner-Olivet district officials said deep cuts last year left few options for the cash-strapped district when cuts were needed again this year.
“You already cut everything last year. What else is there to cut?” Piner Elementary principal Joe Hamp said. “There is simply nothing to cut other than a huge item, like closing a school.”
Shifting Piner’s 295 students to the district’s remaining three campuses will save about $200,000 annually. Another $95,000 will be saved by ending rental agreements and moving Northwest Prep onto the Piner campus next fall.
New enrollment boundaries will be discussed by the school board at a meeting Wednesday, Guillen said.
The reconfiguration means the loss of one principal position, one office staffer and the equivalent of two additional campus jobs that are responsible for things such as food service and yard duty.
The district’s declining enrollment, not the campus reconfiguration, is expected to spur the reduction of one full-time teaching position next fall.
Like many Sonoma County school districts, Piner-Olivet has watched its enrollment numbers fall in recent years, and with it goes state funding affixed to student populations.
In 2000, about 1,640 students were enrolled in the district. Today, that number is closer to 1,275.
Coupled with state budget cutbacks, the district has struggled financially and was deemed in “qualified” financial status by the state. The designation means it won’t meet reserve or cash flow minimums over approximately three years.
The district considered closing a campus last year but determined there wasn’t enough space at the remaining three campuses to accommodate the approximately 300 students who would need a new school.
Because of declining enrollment, the need for 18 open classrooms was reduced to 13 this year. So the move was made this week.
County schools superintendent Carl Wong said he was not aware of any other impending school closures in Sonoma County
.
Officials with several districts, including Petaluma, Windsor, West Sonoma County, Geyserville and Healdsburg likewise said Friday they were not considering any closures.
Nevertheless, closures will likely continue to be studied as last-ditch measures by some districts faced with severe budget cuts, Wong said.
Across the county, state education funding has dropped nearly 23 percent since the fiscal year 2007-2008, to an estimated $538 million for this upcoming year, according to county figures. The reduced funding comes partly as a result of the region’s continued decline in school population, from 74,000 eight years ago to about 71,000 now, Wong said.
The drop has left some schools below state occupancy standards and prompted districts to consider closures.
Where such closures are possible, shuttering an elementary school can save a district up to $400,000, while a high school closure can save twice as much, Wong said. Those figures do not include savings from personnel cuts resulting from the closures, he said. Piner was chosen for closure in part because it would allow Northwest Prep to move from its current location next door into the Piner facilities, and also because Jack London Elementary already shares space with Piner-Olivet Charter School, Guillen said.
Home-school and special-education classes will now be held on the Piner campus next year.
Piner, built in 1957, is the district’s oldest campus.
Two weeks ago, it was honored as one of 238 schools statewide for achieving academic excellence with a population that lives near or at poverty level.
All four elementary schools in the district top the state goal of 800 out of 1,000 in the Academic Performance Index.




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