As discussed previously, the Sebastopol Charter School (SCS) is in contract to purchase a 20 acre property at the northern edge of Sebastopol to develop a new campus. The move will relocate the children which are currently located on 2 campuses in town. Grades K-2 are located in modular classroom buildings adjacent to Brook Haven School. Grades 3-8 are located in a mixed-use building downtown on Main Street. As mentioned in the previous post, the current campus locations allow for a larger number of students to walk and bike than the proposed campus location. In addition to being a drive-to location, the development of the new school is a waste of resources in a town with excess classroom capacity.
The number of school aged children has been dropping in Sebastopol for years and the demographic signs indicate that trend will continue. In the 1995-96 school year, there were 1,400 students enrolled in K-8 programs in the Sebastopol school district. (1995 was also, coincidentally, the first year the Sebastopol Charter School opened its doors, starting with one kindergarten class.) Those 1,400 students were housed in 3 campuses, Park Side, Pine Crest and Brook Haven. In the 2012-13 school year the Sebastopol school district had 1,018 students, which includes 275 students enrolled at the Sebastopol Charter School and 132 students enrolled in the REACH Charter School both of which are chartered in the Sebastopol Union School District (SUSD). SUSD is projecting a further drop of almost 100 students by the 2015-16 school year.
It seems safe to assume that if there were once 1,400 students in the district, there must be desk space for 1,400 in the 3 schools in existence at that time. Since then, the SCS has developed its own two campuses which added approximately 275 desks. So there should currently be space for at least 1,675 students in a school district of 1,018 students.
Faced with the declining enrollment, SUSD decided to close a school campus beginning in the 2011-12 academic year. The SCS attempted to negotiate a lease to move into the vacated Pine Crest School, but could not come to terms with the district. (The sticking point was primarily over the length of the lease with the SCS wanting a longer lease period than the SUSD was willing to provide. The SCS was also pushing the district to sell the campus outright, which the district was not interested in pursuing.) The Pine Crest campus is currently leased to the REACH Charter School and Sun Ridge School, which is a charter school from a neighboring school district. Even adding the students enrolled in Sun Ridge school (252 in the 2012-13 school year), there should still be more than 400 empty desks in the school district. And while it has been dismissed for the time being, SUSD has considered the possibility of closing an additional campus, which would create even more vacant classrooms. So why is the SCS proposing to build another school, with a capacity of 275 students in a school district with more than 400 desks available in existing school facilities? And in a location that is less walkable/bikeable than existing school campus locations.
The biggest explanation is the desire of the SCS school board to have all the students in one location. While this may have been the original vision of the school, it does not take into consideration a world of dwindling resources, and one in which we are realizing the global environmental impact of auto-oriented development. Visions need to adapt to their times rather than be fixed and inflexible. By remaining steadfast to this vision without considering new realities, the school is about to embark on the development of a new campus that will contribute to current environmental problems, rather than working to solve them. The school should look to take advantage of the fact that there are vacant classrooms in our community, even if this means the continuation of a split campus. There are worse things.
Another reason is the desire by some in the school leadership for a more rural and pastoral campus. The school was founded as a public alternative to private Waldorf education. There is a nearby private Waldorf school, Summerfield, that is located in a rural setting of 30+ acres and includes grades K-12. I believe some people still see this as being an ideal type of campus for the Waldorf curriculum which often includes a biodynamic farm component. While it may be a nice addition, there are many Waldorf schools that do not include a biodynamic farm. I do not believe my daughter’s education, physical, emotional or spiritual development has been limited by not having access to a biodynamic farm as part of her education.
A third reason I could see why the school wants to move would be to have more space. While I acknowledge space is tight at the current downtown campus there are options. I have developed several schematic plans to expand the downtown campus which will be included in a future post. And again, facing our new reality, we could all learn to adjust to living with less space, which the school has done quite successfully to this point. Again, I do not believe my own daughter has suffered from being on a school campus with a limited amount of space. In many ways I think there is much to learn from being in tighter quarters, like having respect for the space of those around you and learning to share.
Other than the attempt to lease Pine Crest, there has not, to my knowledge, been any discussion with the SUSD in regards to other alternatives. There was a discussion in a SCS school facilities committee meeting in the summer of 2013 about starting a dialogue with the SUSD, and the other 2 charter schools in town, to discuss alternatives for accommodating all of the students in the district. As I’ve already discussed, there must be vacant classrooms in the district so it seems that if we were to open an honest conversation with the district, and the other 2 schools, we may be able to discover a win-win situation for all involved. Rather than each of us pursuing our facilities needs without stepping back and looking at the larger picture. But soon after that facilities meeting the SCS school board decided to move forward with the purchase of the out of town property.
The new property is 20 acres located outside the northern boundary of town. Although it is located on a bike path which skirts the northern boundary of Sebastopol, it’s not in a very walkable bikeable location. Looking again at the image, you can see that the new location will be out of reach for many of the families that live in Sebastopol. This is not a good move for the school, or the larger community which will have the impact of increased traffic from parents driving children to school, and then having to drive into town to run errands, go to work, etc.
The SCS school board owes it to the school families to thoroughly evaluate all alternatives before embarking on an expensive, and expansive, new school campus project. I know there was a great deal of frustration in the dealing with the SUSD over the lease for Pine Crest and I believe this is one reason the school board did not open the dialogue again. But it is a waste of resources to build another school in Sebastopol at this time. And the auto-oriented location will have implications for our community for decades to come. As can be seen in these images, the current school locations are evenly distributed around town and are more walkable and bikeable. The schools are distributed really well right now. We should be taking advantage of the existing capacity of the in-town schools, not building more schools where few will have the ability to walk/bike to them.