Dunbar elementary to close this fall, but charter school eyes site
Due to steadily declining enrollment, the Sonoma Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees voted unanimously to discontinue the use of Dunbar as an elementary school after the 2022-23 school year, but Woodland Star Charter School has expressed interest in moving into the site.
Trustees made the decision at their board meeting on Thursday, April 20.
All five trustees and many Dunbar staff and community members expressed sadness over the closing of the school, which was established in 1857, making it one of the oldest elementary schools in California.
“I have two daughters at the school, and I am devastated,” said Brenda Castaneda. “This school means a lot to me and to my children. My son goes to Alimira. He’s very respectful now, and he learned to be respectful at Dunbar. He doesn’t need help like he needed before. I see that with other parents, too, closing Dunbar is a very difficult thing right now.”
After the meeting Anne Ching, president of the school district board, said, “It was a heart-wrenching decision to essentially close Dunbar by suspending enrollment indefinitely at the school. Dunbar has the longest history and some of the richest traditions in our Valley. We need to honor its legacy. However, I believe it was the best educational decision for the students.”
Dunbar had 229 students in 2016-17, but was expected to have 81 in 2023-24, a 62% drop. The steady decline has caused the school to combine grade levels in classes and resulted in prohibitively expensive per-student costs of providing ancillary services such as intervention teachers. By closing Dunbar, the district is expected to save $854,000 and $1.1 million.
“This is a place I have a lot of feelings about,” said Trustee Celeste Winders, who attended Dunbar, along with her children. “But my role as a trustee is not to make decisions based upon how I personally have feelings. My role as a trustee is s to make decisions based on best practices in education and instruction, to be a good steward of our children’s educational dollars and to ensure our district always is in compliance with its federal and state educational mandates — in particular, for protective classes. And so, my feelings have to take a back seat.”
If directed, school district staff will utilize the school board’s District-Initiated Intradistrict Transfer policy to assist families of existing Dunbar students to transfer to other schools beginning with the 2023-24 school year. Families will be able to enroll their children in whichever of the district’s remaining elementary schools — El Verano, Flowery, Prestwood and Sassarini — they choose.
Contacted after the meeting, Trustee John Kelly said that it is likely that most Dunbar students will transfer to El Verano, the closest community school in the Dunbar attendance area.
“I know that the El Verano community will welcome the Dunbar students with open arms,” he said. “El Verano is our healthiest, most community-oriented school, and with the outstanding new facilities at that location, the Dunbar students will be well served.”
During the public comment portion of the discussion, Dunbar staff members read a letter they and some of their colleagues wrote to the trustees on April 7 that complained about the process they used in deciding to close the school.
“We were disrespected when you did not begin these conversations with staff and community members in the fall,” they wrote in a portion of the letter. “We were disrespected when the only proposed configuration for Dunbar staying open is so miserable that it is hard to fight for. We were disrespected when our staff members took time out of their full and busy lives to attend board meetings, only to be denied any resolution on Dunbar’s fate.”
The trustees all apologized for insensitivities that the Dunbar community experienced.
Caroline Hopewell, executive director of Woodland Star said that at the school’s board meeting on Wednesday day, members expressed an interest in relocating to Dunbar as early as September.
“Of course, for some things, we would ask the district for help, because we probably would lose some enrollment, although in survey we did in which 74% of our students were represented, 72 confirmed that they would continue their enrollment at our school if we move to the Dunbar campus,” Hopewell said.
She added that 15 of the students indicated that they might continue their enrollment and 13 would not do so. She also said that 38% of the students indicated that they would need some help with transportation in their first year to Dunbar’s Glen Ellen site.