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Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s student enrollment falls by 2%

Sonoma Valley Unified School District’s 2022-23 student enrollment dropped by 2% from last academic year, but the decline is less than what was predicted by an education demographics firm earlier this year.

The enrollment total declined from 3,334 in 2021-22 to 3,265 in 2022-23, but in its “Student Population Forecast by Residence: School Year 2021-22 Report,” Davis Demographics predicted it would fall to 3,166, a 5% drop.

“While I am encouraged that the decline over last year is less than projected, we always try to plan for the worst, but hope for the best, as enrollment projections drive our budget projections,” said Dr. Adrian Palazuelos, superintendent of the school district. “What we know is that if we over-project our enrollment numbers, this can have a dramatically negative impact on our budget.”

Schools with the largest increases in enrollment are Flowery Elementary School, which increased 10%, from 357 to 401 students; Altimira Middle School, which rose 8%, from 367 to 396 students; and Sassarini Elementary School, which grew 8%, from 257 to 277 students.

The largest losses are at Creekside High School, which fell 34%, from 56 to 37 students; Dunbar Elementary School, which dropped 23%, from 150 to 116 students; Adele Harrison Middle School, which declined 15%, from 404 to 342 students; and Prestwood Elementary School, which decreased 9%, from 298 to 263 students.

El Verano Elementary School rose 2%, from 280 to 286 students, and Sonoma Valley High School fell 2%, from 1,165 to 1147 students.

“The only thing consistent about student enrollment is that you can rest assured that it will fluctuate from year to year,” Palazuelos said. “Just like we see throughout California, school districts, in general, are experiencing declining enrollment. This is certainly not unique to SVUSD or our county.

“While I really can’t speculate about the reasons behind enrollment changes, I do know that California — and Sonoma County, in particular — is a very expensive place to live and raise a family. And we all know the effects that COVID has had on schools and the general population in our state and county.”

Davis Demographics’ report, released on Feb. 16, 2022, found that student enrollment in SVUSD has fallen from around 5,000 in the 2004-05 academic year to 4,200 in 2010-11, and 3,334 in 2021-22. The report indicates that district enrollment is expected to decline by an average of 92 students during each of the next nine academic years, reaching a low of 2,413 in 2031-32.

The report attributes the decline to three main factors: an aging population, fewer births, and mobility and housing challenges.

High housing costs are making it difficult for many families to move to Sonoma Valley. Davis Demographics says that this can be mitigated by building new, more affordable housing, but only a few new housing units have been approved by the city and these tend to be multifamily units that historically produce few school-age children.

ESRI estimates that the median age of the general population residing in the district has increased from 45.8 in 2010 to 48.2 in the 2021 and the forecast median age in 2026 is 48.6. The school-age population (ages 5 to 17) has declined from 17.1% in 2010 to 15.3% in 2021, with a further decline to 14.55% predicted by 2026.

Births in the ZIP codes that overlap with SVUSD (95431, 95442, 95452 and 95476) have fallen from 440 in 2009, to 326 in 2016, to 259 in 2020. The district had 234 resident kindergartners in 2018-19 and 219 in 2021-22. If this pattern continues, there could be less than 200 resident kindergarten students by the 2024-25 school year.

A few California school districts — including SVUSD — receive their funding based upon their local property taxes rather than their attendance, but declining enrollment can have other negative effects on a district, including school closures. This may be a realistic and perhaps inevitable option at some point, but would likely be unpopular among many Sonoma Valley residents, especially those with long and meaningful affiliations to those schools.

Squire Fridell, winemaker and manager at GlenLyon Vineyards & Winery in Glen Ellen, is concerned about the future of Dunbar Elementary School, one of the schools with the largest enrollment slippage this year. He and his wife, Suzy, created, produced and directed the Dunbar Melodrama Project for many years, with all the profits from performances going to the Dunbar arts program. They also built a 1,000-square-foot redwood amphitheater on campus.

“We are greatly troubled by the lower enrollment at Dunbar, given its long history in our Valley, and would hate to see it closed,” Squire Fridell said. “Our daughter [Lexi] went to Dunbar and her melodrama was the very first one produced — it ended up on Broadway in New York City. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough elementary-aged children that live in this area.”

Reach the reporter, Dan Johnson, at daniel.johnson@sonomanews.com.

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