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School districts sharing by necessity

The 2008-09 Grand Jury’s call for a new look at unifying Tuolumne County schools, given dropping enrollments and revenue, seems timely and well advised.

As several past grand juries have, the 2008-09 panel suggests that savings and additional state income resulting from combined school districts could bring more cash to the classroom.

But the same rocky economy that helped motivate the Grand Jury’s 13-page examination of our present, 11-district system has also prompted something else: A previously unseen level of cooperation among our schools.

Consider this: Tuolumne County today has one fewer district, one fewer school and four fewer superintendents than it had two years ago.

The Chinese Camp District has merged with Jamestown. Sullivan Creek School has closed. Belleview and Columbia, Sonora and Curtis Creek, and Twain Harte and Summerville High are now sharing bosses, collectively saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. And more trustees are foregoing meeting stipends and district-paid insurance.

What’s more, these moves came without any spurring from the grand juries, petitioners or scathing state reports.

Instead, districts learned to share by necessity: Their hands were forced by dropping enrollment (more than 1,500 over the past decade) and income (down millions countywide, forcing elimination of close to 100 Tuolumne County teaching and non-teaching positions).

There may be virtue in cooperation, but first and foremost it was a matter of survival. Our school superintendents and administrators should be commended for taking these steps.

While previous grand juries waving the unification and consolidation flags were often ignored, this year’s panel, at least to some extent, is preaching to the choir.

In past years, schools dismissed jury recommendations, arguing that consolidation or mergers would bring a loss of local control and a diluted education. Now, however, superintendents taking on second districts vow that classroom quality will not be compromised.

If this is true, one must wonder why such moves were not made earlier.

A more relevant question, however, is what to make of the jurors’ recommendation that consolidation (sharing services) and unification (the actual merger of districts) “be brought to the forefront of pubic debate.”

Our districts should continue to explore every opportunity to cut costs through cooperation. Obvious areas would be business services, buses, cafeteria and specialized programs like music or art.

Unification, however, should be pursued with more caution. The process leading to multi-district mergers is long, complex and, at least in Tuolumne County, politically charged.

Yes, the Grand Jury reports that local schools could get an additional $3 million in annual per-student payments if unified. But given the budget crisis in Sacramento, such projections may have extremely short shelf lives. There are also additional significant off-setting costs that come with unification  

While the idea of combining our 11 districts into one, two or three larger, unified agencies, has some appeal, launching such an effort amid a grinding recession — and an endless state budget crisis — is not realistic.

Instead, it would be wise to monitor our shared-superintendent experiments and the Jamestown-Chinese Camp merger before taking any next step.

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