By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Four contenders are vying for two seats on the Cotati-Rohnert Park School Board in a race that is pitting claims of fresh ideas against pronouncements of seasoned experience in the face of deep budget cuts and declining enrollment.
Sonoma County’s third largest school district has cut days from its student calendar, reduced professional development hours, raised and lowered class sizes, slashed teacher pay and closed schools in order to weather the long-running budgetary storm.
Every day, about 800 students leave Cotati-Rohnert Park to attend schools outside of the district. About 400 students transfer in, according to district officials.
Since 2007-08, enrollment has fallen from 6,655 to 5,757 for the current year. During that same span, expenditures have been cut by $9.8 million — from $56.2 million six years ago to $46.4 million this year.
If the Proposition 30 trigger cuts are enacted, the district could lose an additional $2.5 million this year.
But in June a ray of sunlight appeared: Voters passed a parcel tax expected to produce about $5.3 million for the district over the five-year life of the tax.
The district has also seen its state Academic Performance Index score rise from 750 out of 1,000 in 2008 to 771 this year. The state target is 800.
Incumbents contend they have steered the district through unfathomable budget cuts while developing new programs and keeping funds as close to the classroom as possible. But newcomers Jennifer Wiltermood, 43, and Mike Bowcut, 59, say not enough is being done to promote the district’s programs to area families who have chosen to drive their children elsewhere rather than enroll them in Cotati-Rohnert Park schools.
“I have been talking to a lot of people. They can’t pinpoint why they think it’s so much better, they just say ‘It’s so much better,’” said Wiltermood, a Realtor who has a child at Evergreen Elementary and one who graduated from Technology High. “They say, ‘I’m taking my kids to Santa Rosa for ArtQuest.’ But did you know that we have the same type of classes? We really need to promote it.”
Bowcut, chief financial officer for Nelson Staffing in Sonoma, said when he worked in the east bay he commuted hours just so his children could attend Cotati-Rohnert Park schools. Two children graduated from Rancho Cotate High School and the third is a senior there.
“We put our money where our mouth is,” he said. “I can’t even imagine why people would take their kids somewhere else.”
Bowcut said as a trustee he’d pursue self-sustaining before- and after-school childcare programs to help working parents keep kids on local campuses.
“One of the main reasons people take their students out of town is they work in Santa Rosa and take their kids,” he said.
Ed Gilardi, a 55-year-old produce manager and buyer for United Markets, has been on the board 16 years and has seen his two kids graduate from Cotati-Rohnert Park schools. The current board has made significant changes in recent years to lure families back to the district — all while enduring dramatic cuts from Sacramento, he said.
“We are trying to be as responsive as possible in making changes that don’t have a financial burden on the district but can, hopefully, in the long term, increase student enrollment which obviously increases the dollars” from Sacramento, he said.
The district this year introduced a year-round schedule at Evergreen Elementary, re-configured John Reed Elementary as a K-3 campus and Waldo Rohnert as a 4-6 campus, while Thomas Page became a K-8 science-focused school.
Plans to open long-closed La Fiesta Elementary School were shelved when too few parents committed to the campus.
Karyn Pulley, 60, was first elected in 2000 and is a former teacher who had two children go through Cotati-Rohnert Park schools.
When budget cuts pushed kindergarten through sixth-grade class sizes up to an average of 30 students in 2011 teachers and families cried foul. The district responded, Pulley said.
“Teachers asked for class size reduction, we have gotten it down some,” she said, noting that K-2 classes are averaging about 24 students this year.
“I’m exceedingly proud of our staff and what they continue to offer,” she said. “They give 110 percent without ever asking why. They will keep going because they believe so much in education.”
Pulley, along with Bowcut, received the endorsement of the 290-member Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association.
“She is willing to speak up at board meetings. We feel that she will continue to not just go along with a recommendation,” said Richard Neffson, president of the teachers union. “We are hoping that a new candidate, a new set of ears, an independent thinker — that (Bowcut) will hopefully understand what we have sacrificed and how hard we work.”
Cotati-Rohnert Park is the only district in the county to be in what the state calls a negative financial status, meaning it is not projected to meet minimum reserve and cash flow requirements over two years.
Since 2009-10, the district has been under the guidance of a fiscal advisor from the Sonoma County Office of Education who must approve all budgetary decisions within the district.
“We will be there until they are in positive status,” said Denise Calvert, deputy superintendent at the county office of education. “The problem had more to do with declining enrollment than fiscal mismanagement.”
The election is Nov. 6.
Incumbent/Produce manager and buyer for United Markets
20-year member of the Education Foundation of Cotati-Rohnert Park; 16-year PTA member
Past delegate to the California School Boards Association; past president of the Sonoma County 4-H Council
Chief financial officer for Nelson Staffing
Member, Community Advisory Committee formed in 2010 to give school district financial feedback
President, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District PTA Council; co-chair Yes on Measure D committee
(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @benefield.)