Tuolumne schools balk at merger idea

10/05/2013 12:00 AM

10/05/2013 7:43 PM

There’s an effort afoot in the foothills to consolidate Tuolumne County schools under a single administration instead of a dozen, a move proposed by a group of local taxpayers and one staunchly opposed by many trustees and community stalwarts.

Creating a single headquarters would streamline operations, could improve instruction and might save money for the county. But with it come the headaches of merging different unions, salary schedules and entirely different ways of doing business.

As one example, consider the apples-and-oranges case of two bond measures Tuolumne County voters approved last year for two high school districts in Summerville and Sonora.

Summerville Union High School District property owners will pay $25.3million for a $10million bond sale in 2013 and others in 1998 and 2004. The latest measure passed by a razor-thin margin of two votes and primarily will be used to make over the high school football stadium. It also will buy an initial complement of tablets or computers for individual student use, an investment that board members acknowledge will be short-lived.

Sonora Union High School District has one $8 million bond. Including interest, it committed its property owners to paying $14.4 million. The proceeds will go to a classroom building badly in need of repair on the Sonora High campus, and also to renovate its cafeteria and a historic hall used for classes. More controversial is a plan to replace and relocate an aging school/community pool.

Boards of both districts, the two largest in the county, approved studying the idea of merging. But expected funding from a community group to calculate cost savings dried up, and the notion has gone nowhere.

First-year Summerville Superintendent Robert Griffith said the Tuolumne-area community has deep traditions and special challenges that weigh against the merger.

“The huge savings they’re talking about – that’s not going to happen,” said Dennis Spisak, a Summerville Union High board member.

In Sonora, Superintendent Mike McCoy said he took part in unification as an administrator in a far larger district. “There are great pluses and minuses. There are 25 ways to do a unification wrong and there’s one way to do it right,” he said.

Among the positives are cost containment on administration, greater purchasing power and shared expertise. “Here, with all these different little districts, every superintendent has to be an expert on eight or 10 different things,” McCoy said.

There also could be a unified voice on policy, with five board members instead of 63, and a school calendar that lines up days off at high schools and elementary schools.

Greater collaboration among schools would ease transitions as eighth-graders move on to high school. At a recent board meeting at Summerville High, a teacher noted students come to the district “all over the map” in skill levels.

But there are also negatives, McCoy said. “By becoming a large district, you lose the ability to be nimble. You lose the personal decision-making,” he said.

Last year, when the Summerville district voted to study the idea, then-Superintendent John Keiter said he was glad to have the issue studied to lay it to rest. Keiter retired at year’s end.

Concerns he raised at the time included the makeup of the school board. Since Summerville’s district has fewer voters, it stands to reason they would have the smaller number of trustees and funding might not be equitably spent, he said.

“This could be pretty traumatic for a community, so we want to get it right. It’s got to be a win-win for both districts,” Keiter said.

Tuolumne County Superintendent Joe Silva sees some win-wins in bringing the county’s small districts together, starting with bulk purchasing power. He said the county coordinates an all-districts purchase of propane for winter heating now and several superintendents serve two districts.

“There would be one superintendent, one business manager, one director of transportation, one food service manager,” he said.

A single drama teacher could serve, for example, Sonora Elementary School and Sonora High School without having to split minutes between two employers. High school and younger students could be in the same play without having to sort out insurance and liability issues.

A taxpayers group, the Tuolumne County Committee for Unification of Resources for Education, formed last year to pursue joining the districts under a countywide administration like Mariposa Unified, San Francisco Unified and a handful of others.

The group, which calls itself TuCCURE on Facebook, plans a petition drive to put the matter before voters in 2014.

Organizer Domenic Torchia described the process, now in its ninth month, as being “a bureaucratic nightmare. No wonder people get discouraged.” Once the petition language gets approval, 25percent of voters in each of the 11 districts must sign on to put the concept to a vote, but he said there is no shortage of willing signature gatherers.

Communities want art and music restored and more money to be spent on students, he said. “Our goal is simply to take all the millions of dollars of bureaucracy and put it in classrooms,” he said.

Declining numbers of students have put increasing pressure on schools to be prudent with their money. Tuolumne County’s student numbers have steadily declined since 1998. Enrollment peaked at 8,484 in the 1998-98 school year. For 2012-13, the county posted attendance of 6,245, a 26 percent drop. That latest figure includes 806 students in charter schools, which also take children from outside the county.

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