Laguna lays off one of two teachers

04/12/2018

Straining under budgetary problems stemming from a quickly waning student body, the historic elementary school in Chileno Valley will lose one of its two teachers next year. 

The decision was unanimously approved on Tuesday evening by the three-member board of the Laguna Joint School District. 

Nancy Morita, a bilingual instructor who has taught in the school for two years, will not be back in the fall. The other teacher, Cindy Demchuk, who also serves as the school’s principal, will oversee Laguna’s 14 students, who range from pre-kindergarten to fourth grade. 

“I’ve been able to bring my students up from being way below grade level,” Ms. Morita said on Tuesday. “I have taught them how to read. One certificated teacher for 14 students, many of whom don’t understand English, is not enough.”

All but one of the students who attend the school are children of ranch hands living on neighboring ranches and most of the students are English language learners. The school historically had a population comprised of landowners’ children as well as ranch hands’ children. “Now, with two parents working, parents realize they have options and send their children to larger schools with more before and after care,” Ms. Demchuk said. As a result, “the funding of schools changes. The pendulums swing and the formula swings.”

Kate Lane, the district’s chief business officer, said the school’s total revenues is $235,000, while expenditures are $380,000. “We are deficit spending at a pretty outrageous rate,” she said, adding that the population has fallen dramatically in the last three years.

A few parents spoke on Ms. Morita’s behalf on Tuesday. Petaluma resident Vanessa Vertigan, who sent her three children to the school on inter-district transfers because of the peaceful location, has one child still there. She said she wished she had been able to find the funds to keep Ms. Morita. “We have been fortunate to have her, to see how she goes above and beyond,” Ms. Vertigan said. 

Ms. Morita echoed her sentiment, asking if there was a fundraising option, to which the district’s superintendent, Luke McCann, replied: “School districts can’t be funded on dreams of fundraising.”

Araceli and Victor Garcia have a son in Ms. Morita’s class. “No bien,” Ms. Garcia told the board. “Two teachers are not enough. There is no time to take care of the children.” Mr. Garcia added that it was safer for the children with two teachers.

According to data from the California Board of Education, 77 percent of the school’s students were socioeconomically disadvantaged and 82 percent were English learners last year (when there were 17 students, compared to this year’s 14.) 

Students at Laguna also met academic standards last year. The English language learners’ progress in English proficiency was 81 percent. The chronic absenteeism rate is 5.9 percent, while Marin County as a whole has a rate of 8.6 percent; statewide it is 10.8 percent. 

The school board had until May 14 to make a decision on Ms. Morita’s layoff, but since the next board meeting is not until May 22, Mr. McCann asked the board to take action on Tuesday. 

“There’s nothing that’s going to happen between now and then that could make a financial difference,” he said.

Sally Gale, who welcomed Ms. Morita and the school children on a recent tour of her Chileno Valley Ranch, called the decision to lay her off “a community failure.”

After approving the layoff, the board passed an action allowing the recruitment of a bilingual instructional assistant.