SONORA -- Two shrinking school districts may pool their resources to serve area teens.
Summerville and Sonora high school district boards approved looking at a merger last month. It would take at least one more school year to accomplish.
"We've got declining enrollment in this county. We said, 'Let's do a study and see if it saves money or not,' " said Tuolumne County Superintendent Joe Silva.
Silva said Tuolumne districts consolidate where it makes sense. Schools join in a bulk purchase of propane for a better price. Some share a superintendent, a business office or a music teacher.
A single district might save still more, he said. "I can see one superintendent, one business manager, one director of transportation, one food service manager," Silva said.
Where small high schools might struggle to keep teachers with the credentials needed for advanced courses, a larger district could share them.
Stanislaus County, with 105,000 students, has 10 school districts serving all grades and 15 elementary districts teaching students through eighth grade. The largest is Modesto City Schools with about 29,000 children; the smallest is Knights Ferry, with 117 students, one of six school districts with fewer than 200 enrolled.
The only recent consolidation was La Grange Elementary School District in easternmost Stanislaus County, with five students, which folded into tiny Roberts Ferry Union Elementary School District over the summer.
Mariposa County's 1,900 students and San Francisco County's 56,200 share the distinction of being served by single unified districts. There are seven such counties in California.
Tuolumne County has 11 school districts, most serving 300 to 500 students. Combined, it had 6,403 students in 2011-12. Its two largest are the ones looking to join forces. An elementary and a high school district would unify, but because these are both high school districts, the process is called unionization.
Summerville Union High School District covers about two-thirds of the county's acreage, but serves fewer than 900 students. It includes Summerville High, with 473 "Bears," two charter schools and Long Barn High with 13 students.
The district also serves three state-designated "small but necessary" high schools with two or three students each South Fork High, Mountain High and Cold Springs High.
The Sonora Union High School District covers a fraction of that acreage, but has more students 1,256 as of 2011-12. They come from schools in the Columbia, Sonora, Jamestown, Soulsbyville, Curtis Creek and Belleview elementary districts.
Fewer students are on the way, however. Sonora High enrollment has dropped 33 percent since its peak in 2000. Summerville High has lost about 40 percent of its enrollment since 2000.
Census Bureau figures show the high school population in the county will continue to decline, with fewer younger children living in the area.
Enrollment is one of the issues the study will cover, Silva said. Another variable is bond funding. Both districts passed measures in November to buy technology and upgrade facilities.
A tale of two bonds
Sonora's Measure J passed comfortably, giving the district $23 million to spend on fixes and improvements.
Summerville's Measure H initially failed by two votes, said Superintendent John Keiter. But a recount identified two miscounts and swung the $8 million bond measure their way.
"They had to hand count it. I watched every single ballot," Keiter said. Final tally: 2,610 "yes" votes, or a win by two votes.
Keiter said his board supported doing the unionization study. "We don't know what the study is going to reveal. The study is to indicate if it's fiscally beneficial," he said.
Funding for the study, estimated at $15,000, is expected to come from the Sonora Area Foundation. "My initial reaction is, 'Good, somebody else is going to pay for it, and we'll get a lot of questions answered,' " Keiter said.
But don't expect an overnight decision, he said. "Everybody wants to get way down the road on this, like it's a done deal. But the process of unionizing takes years," Keiter said.
Years he won't be there for. The Summerville superintendent announced last month that he would retire June 30.
Questions he wants answered, however, include how funding would be distributed and how many seats his district would get on a new board, because it's the smaller district by enrollment.
He sees advantages in sharing duties for reporting and testing, but a lot will come down to the small details, he said.
"I'm not in favor of big centralized school systems. In my mind, that would be one of the downsides. You're making a local government entity bigger and slower," Keiter said. "It's got to be a win-win for both districts."
The Sonora Union High board also voted unanimously to proceed with the study, said Superintendent Michael McCoy, who sits on the regional board for school accreditation.
"In this time of fiscal difficulties, we're always looking for ways to maximize resources for classrooms and teachers. If there's administrative savings to be had by unionization, we're certainly interested in looking at it," he said.
Silva said if the study shows benefits and all goes smoothly, the new district could open its doors July 1, 2015. He expects the study, to be done by outside experts, to be finished this summer. If the process moves forward, there would be public hearings in the affected districts.
The Tuolumne County Board of Education would make what is for all practical purposes the final decision, although the state Board of Education also must approve the plan.
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter, @NanAustin, www.modbee.com/education.
BY THE NUMBERS
960 The number of school districts in California, including about 80 high school districts. In 1935, there were 3,500 districts.
2 The number of votes that turned a loss into a win for the Summerville Union High district's $8 million school facilities bond Measure H in a November recount. Two also was the number of students in two of the district's more remote high schools, South Fork and Cold Springs, in 2011-12.
35 The percentage of enrollment Summerville and Sonora high schools have lost since 2000-01. In 2011-12 Sonora High had 1,256 students, and Summerville High had 473.
18 The minimum number of months it would take to formalize the merger. A study analyzing potential savings is expected to be finished this summer.