Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

PUBLIC MEETINGS: Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees, 6 p.m. Tuesday, district office, 100 School St.

Summerville Union High School District Board of Trustees, 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, school library, 17555 Tuolumne Road.

The Sonora High and Summerville High school boards are discussing the possibility of joining as a single district.

Tuolumne County Office of Education representatives will attend Summerville High and Sonora High board meetings this week to open a conversation about the potential benefits of melding the schools. Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva said that if the school boards show interest, he'll seek funding for a study from the nonprofit Sonora Area Foundation.

The study would examine the financial impacts of unifying. Advocates believe it could cut down dramatically on administrative costs and put more money in classrooms.

"I'm not promoting unionization," said Silva. "I'm simply asking the question: Do you guys want to look at it?"

Silva said he met with Sonora High board member Kathy Ankrom and Summerville High's Dennis Spisak and Cheri Farrell, who signaled they would be open to discussing the possibility.

Both Sonora Union High School District Superintendent Mike McCoy and Summerville Union High School District Superintendent John Keiter, who is retiring June 30, said they would like to see a study done.

McCoy has said the still-sour economy should motivate school districts to consider consolidating as a way to save money. Districts in several states, including California, are going through the same process, he said.

"People are looking at economies of scale," McCoy said. "This is a national and a statewide trend."

Keiter said consolidating school districts may cause financial losses, but that the community has "got to talk" about the possibility of Summerville High and Sonora High combining.

The study would be done by either School Services of California or the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, both of which provide financial advice to school districts.

Silva estimated the study would take two months.

Actually combining the districts would take much longer and ultimately involve an election.

First, though, school boards would gauge public sentiment.

"I think they would want to be conscientious," said Silva, who said it's too early for him to comment on the potential benefits and drawbacks of unionization.

Sonora High and Summerville High each have their strengths.

Sonora High offers a range of popular vocational programs, including cosmetology and medical career classes. Summerville High's Connections Visual and Performing Arts Academy, a charter school, attracts academically and artistically gifted students.

Both districts passed bond measures in November to fund improvements to their campuses - with Sonora High's bond measure totaling $23 million and Summerville High's $8 million.

The bond measures rekindled public discussion about the districts' administrative costs and the possibility of combining districts in Tuolumne County to save money on superintendent salaries.

Both Keiter and McCoy have doctoral degrees. Keiter will earn about $207,000 this year with no added health benefits or business expense compensation.

McCoy will earn about $143,000 as a base salary, with added health benefits. Neither figure includes expenses such as district contributions to the California State Teachers' Retirement System.

Thirty-five percent of Keiter's salary is paid by Twain Harte-Long Barn Union School District, an elementary district of about 280 students that he also oversees.

Sonora High and Summerville High employ their own chief business officials to manage budgets. Sonora High's will earn about $104,000 this year. Summerville High's will earn about $109,000 for managing both Twain Harte-Long Barn and Summerville budgets.

Following a failed bid to unify Sonora High with its "feeder" elementary school districts in 1999, the Sonora Area Foundation funded a study that suggested all Tuolumne County districts share more costs - for example, by sharing counselors or transportation managers.

The 2000 study listed possible benefits of combining districts as greater financial flexibility, no duplication of expenses, and a wider range of programs for students.