Sonoma County Office of Education

Letter on Air Quality from Board President Herman G. Hernandez

11/21/2018 -

As the Sonoma County Office of Education Board President, I would like to express my deepest sympathy for parents and educators with students in Sonoma County’s K-12 schools. Over the last week, parents, educators, and leaders have been faced with challenging decisions about school closures in the midst of smoke conditions throughout the North Bay. It is my goal to better inform you and clear up some confusion regarding the school guidelines created by local superintendents, and the County's Health Officer earlier last week.

The Sonoma County Board of Education and the Sonoma County Superintendent of Education have unique roles that differ from those at the local school districts – there are 40 school districts in Sonoma County. The Sonoma County Board of Education is elected like local school board members and is the governing board for its alternative education schools, including court and community schools. The Board also is charged with approving the County Office of Education budget, setting the Superintendent’s salary, and hearing appeals related to student expulsions and interdistrict attendance. Our authority is quite limited in scope and is not designed to supersede decisions made by your local school districts.

It is very important to inform the community that the Sonoma County Board of Education does not control school district policy, nor does it have direct jurisdiction over Sonoma County Office of Education staff – including the County Superintendent. In local school districts, a superintendent is hired or released based on actions of the local board. At the County Office of Education, the superintendent is ELECTED by County voters. In addition, local school districts make policy decisions that affect their entire district. The County Board of Education makes policy decisions that affect their alternative education schools, only.

Recently, the County superintendent, the majority of the local school district superintendents, and the County of Sonoma Health Officer discussed air quality guidelines, agreed upon these guidelines, and recommended them to the 40 school districts in Sonoma County. SCOE Board Trustees were not part of this decision, nor did we provide input prior to this decision being made. We did not learn about the results of the meeting until it had been publicized in local media and social media. Also, these were recommendation, not enforced policies on local school districts—they have the right to make their own decision.

It is clear the community has differing opinions as to the numerical air quality guidelines set this week by the County’s Superintendents. We would like to emphasize and remind everyone that school districts make the final decision about school closures and that parents make the final call about their children’s school attendance. Also, these guidelines are not set in stone and we can advocate for changing these standards -- you can help establish guidelines for your own school district. Our advice to concerned parents and educators is to continue to provide feedback to SCOE about the established guidelines but it is more important that you also contact your local school district board, staff and superintendent, and voice your opinion.

The Sonoma County Board of Education wants the community to know that we are listening, and we too are advocating for policymakers to adapt wisely and quickly to the new normal. We must come together to address the challenges caused by devastating wildfires, and it’s more important than ever that we revise our plans that will allow us to better address these types of emergencies in the future. It’s evident that statewide guidelines need to be set by health authorities regarding air quality safety; locally we should investigate costs of placing air quality devices at all school sites and assuring that HVAC infrastructures are updated; and it’s important that we do this together.

We thank the public for the immense amount of feedback we have received from all perspectives. Please be cognizant moving forward about the roles we all play, how we can work together, and how we can support each other in these emergent situations. Have a very Happy Thanksgiving!