Santa Rosa school official seeks community support for public schools

Five months after wildfires destroyed the homes of 800 students, Santa Rosa City School District continues to see its enrollment dip.

The district has lost 575 students, or about 3.5 percent of its student body, said Jenni Klose, the school board president. Concerned over declining enrollment and its impact on already falling revenues, she turned to local heavyweights Wednesday to support Sonoma County’s largest school district.

Klose addressed about 250 business and community leaders during the Sonoma County Alliance’s monthly breakfast, where she urged members to invest in the school district.

“We need to be better than average. Our school system right now needs to be a draw,” Klose said. “We need to take some local responsibility.”

It was an unconventional move for a school board member, but one that Superintendent Diann Kitamura said was important for the district and its 15,000 students.

“Our revenue is at the 2008 level,” Kitamura said. “For us to truly prepare our students, we have to have support.”

Despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s pledge to provide an additional $3 billion to K-12 schools for the coming year, Santa Rosa is among many school districts in the county and state dealing with deep spending cuts from declining enrollment and rising employee health care and pension costs. Some schools have reached out to residents for donations to keep electives off the chopping block.

The Santa Rosa school board last month unanimously approved $7.2 million in cuts from the 2018-19 budget, which likely means students will have larger class sizes and fewer electives next school year.

“Our state doesn’t fund us well, so it unfortunately falls on our local businesses to bridge that gap,” Klose said after the alliance meeting. “This is an involved group, but we need to ask the community to step up more.”

The alliance’s education committee has raised more than $40,000 to support education and literacy programs since it was formed four years ago, said Mick Menendez, who chairs the committee. He said the future of business depends on an educated and trained workforce.

“The urgency now is heightened because of the disaster we went through,” he said, referring to October’s wildfires.

Klose said a community’s economic health relies on a strong education system that provides both college and career tracks. Good schools attract new residents and businesses to an area and boost quality of life, keeping students from dropping out, she said.

“These kids dropping out are not someone else’s problem. This is a community issue,” said Lisa Wittke Schaffner, director of the John Jordan Foundation and a member of the Sonoma County Board of Education.

Schaffner, who previously served as the alliance’s CEO, applauded Klose for seeking support. She said many districts have turned to outside partners during difficult economic times.

Lisa Carreño, regional director of 10,000 Degrees, a San Rafael-based nonprofit that provides scholarships to low-income students, said local business and community leaders have a stake in supporting students, helping them complete high school and any post secondary education.

“It’s imperative to the well-being of our community,” she said.

As residents’ education levels increase, so do their incomes, spending, and voting and civic engagement, Klose said. While the Santa Rosa school district’s graduation rate last year was slightly higher than the state average of 83 percent, Klose said more work needs to be done to prepare students for college and career paths.

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