By JEREMY HAY & MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Only 12 hours after the Santa Rosa school board’s early-morning decision to close Doyle Park Elementary School to make way for a French-American charter school, exhausted Doyle Park parents, teachers and students were still reeling.
As parents picked up their children Thursday afternoon, Principal Kaesa Enemark said she was reminding students to keep their focus, even though the campus is set to close at the end of the school year.
“Yes, we may be shutting down, but we still have testing coming up, don’t lose your head,” was the message Enemark said she was delivering all day.
Falling enrollment, which has made Doyle Park a money-losing campus with declining test scores, made closing the school a fiscally responsible decision, district officials said.
“We are at the mercy of the dollar,” school board President Larry Haenel said just before the 1 a.m. vote Thursday. “We have to balance our budget.”
The seven-member board acted after one of the longest school board meetings in memory, an emotional debate in which dozens of people representing both Doyle Park and the newly created charter school essentially squared off in a battle for the same campus, located on Sonoma Avenue for 61 years.
Enrollment and the money it brings were central to the argument. The 240 students who now attend Doyle Park could be replaced by more than 300 charter students, about two-thirds of them who live in other districts. That represents new district revenue of close to $1 million.
School district staff had argued that closing Doyle Park also would save $411,000 if its current students stay in the district.
The debate was contentious and at times vitriolic, laced with accusations of racism and discrimination, as well as barbed comments between some of the board members.
The key vote came from board member Tad Wakefield, who three weeks ago at the board’s Feb. 22 meeting had said he opposed closing the school.
His reversal drew jeers from Doyle Park supporters when he admitted that he had placed the names of his two children on the list of possible future students for the French-American charter school. The admission came after someone in the crowd abruptly asked if his kids were on the list.
“I did put their names on the list,” he said, adding that he consulted the district’s legal counsel to make sure he could still participate in the vote. Haenel later defended Wakefield, saying there was no financial conflict.
“I can in good conscience say that this is the right decision,” said Wakefield before the vote was taken.
An abstention likely would not have changed the outcome of the decision. Board members Haenel, Donna Jeye and Bill Carle supported closure, while Laura Gonzalez and Ron Kristof opposed it.
Thursday afternoon, as they collected their children, Doyle Park parents expressed their unhappiness with the decision and discussed with Enemark what would happen next.
“It’s discrimination against people who speak Spanish to put in a school for French and to do it just for the money,” said Lorenzo Sarmiento, waiting for his second-grade daughter.
“We aren’t in France, we’re in California,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “Instead of a French school they should start a bilingual school for English and Spanish.”
Alfredo Bitancor, waiting for his second-grade daughter, condemned the board’s reasoning.
“I came from the Philippines and we had budget problems but we didn’t close schools,” he said. “We can rectify the problem with the political will. It’s not a business; it’s education.”
As part of the closure, board members approved a motion giving “existing Doyle Park resident students priority” enrollment in the new French-American charter school. A second motion called for examining the feasibility of opening a “Spanish/English Immersion” program at the start of 2013-2014 school year.
Haenel assured that the Spanish immersion program would be on the east side of Santa Rosa, and he credited the French charter school for bringing such language programs to the attention of the board.
During the meeting, Doyle Park students and their parents, some of them in tears, begged school board members not to close their school and to give them another chance.
“I just came here to speak to you and to try to touch your hearts,” said Jessica Nares, a Doyle Park fifth-grader. “If you don’t think Doyle Park has enough kids, why don’t you guys bring some people from other schools,” she said, shortly before breaking into tears.
Some charter school supporters said it was unfortunate that the issue had become so divisive and reminded Doyle Park parents that their children would be given priority enrollment in the new charter school.
As the meeting dragged on late into the evening, Jennifer Schwinn, a charter founder, urged board members to make a decision. She said the charter is only five months from the start of the school year and needs to have a campus site in place.
One supporter of the French American charter school urged the board to muster the courage to close Doyle Park, because, given the district’s current financial crisis, it could no longer afford to continue to subsidize a “chronically under-performing school.”
That sort of characterization was rejected by Doyle Park supporters on Thursday afternoon.
“He was here by choice,” Gloria Torres said of her grandson, who she was waiting to pick up.
“Both my children, who are grown, went to this school, and the teachers are excellent,” she said.
“My daughter gets straight A’s, and her teachers work with her all the time,” Candace Kirby said of her first-grade child.
However, enrollment has plummeted. From the 2002-2003 school year to the present, the number of students has dropped from 362 to 240. The low enrollment put the school’s expenses during the 2010-2011 school year at $180,000 over revenues.
Meanwhile, the number of parents who have signed up for the French-American charter has ballooned. Schwinn said Wednesday that the French charter has signed up 301 students. The parents of another 94 children ages 1 to 4 said they’d be interested in enrolling their kids in the future.
Haenel warned that if the district could not find an adequate site for the French charter school, the district could lose the in-district students that have signed up, amounting to a loss of $450,000.