Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

The Sonora Union High School District Board of Trustees affirmed its interest Tuesday in studying the benefits of merging with Summerville Union High School District.

Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin said a study by an outside consulting group could help Sonora and Summerville high schools decide whether they should merge into a single district of about 1,900 students.

Of chief interest is any cost savings that could be realized in a time of "continuing financial problems" for schools, Bulkin said. She added that a study could confirm that savings, not losses, would occur.

"The question that keeps coming up is: Is this fiscally viable?" said Tami Ethier, the Tuolumne County Office of Education's assistant superintendent for business services. "If it's not going to be helpful as far as the dollars and cents … then it stops right there."

Other factors that a study would examine include the preservation of "tradition" at each school site, the fair distribution of school resources, and other impacts on students, Bulkin said.

Sonora High board member Mel Ginn, who started teaching at the school in 1961, voiced concern about pursuing a merger.

"The last time for Sonora High and Summerville High to even broach the subject of unionization was in 1964," Ginn said. "In 1964, Summerville said 'Thanks, but no thanks.' "

"I doubt very much whether that mindset … has changed in the interim," Ginn said.

He later added that a previous effort to unify school districts in Tuolumne County was "very fractious."

Sonora High Board President Jeanie Smith said she'd want proof that merging the school districts, and other districts in the county, would create a "better educational system."

"The communities need to want it or it's doomed to failure," she said.

If the Summerville High Board of Education also expresses interest, Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva will formally request funding for a study from the philanthropic Sonora Area Foundation.

Silva was unable to attend Tuesday's Sonora High meeting because he is in Washington, D.C. lobbying for federal forest reserve funds.

Bulkin said Silva is putting forth the idea of merging high schools into one because of financial challenges and changes in leadership, chiefly the upcoming retirement of Summerville High Superintendent John Keiter.

But Bulkin said that Silva has also gotten wind of a grassroots effort to reorganize school districts, led by former Board of Supervisors candidate Domenic Torchia and a few other community members on what Torchia calls a "fact-finding committee."

Torchia told The Union Democrat that the committee, which is seeking more members, wants a completereorganization of schools in the county into one district. It's meeting later this month to discuss strategy and won't back down, he said.

"I'm not one to say, 'Let's start this thing and let it die a natural death,' " Torchia said.

Silva is floating the idea of a Summerville High and Sonora High merger because he wants to give school boards control of the discussion, Bulkin said.

California law allows the merging of school districts to start in one of two ways: The collection of signatures from 25 percent of voters within each district or the approval of each school board.

Following the receipt of a petition signed by voters or school board members, Silva would review it for compliance with deadlines and other rules.

After passing a review, the proposal would go to both the California State Board of Education and a county committee on school district organization consisting of Tuolumne County Board of Education members.

If certain conditions were met, the county committee would have the authority to approve the petition and grant an election.

But if the committee denied the proposal, an appeals process would give the State Board of Education authority to call an election instead.

The state board nixed a 1999 proposal to unify Sonora Union High School District with its elementary school feeder districts.

Because a potential merging of Sonora High and Summerville High districts would have many bureaucratic bridges to cross, it could not take place next year, Silva said. A study of potential benefits would simply be a starting point.

Smith, who witnessed the failed effort to unify Sonora High with its feeder schools, said the study "can't hurt." She also called for a new study on unifying Summerville High with its feeder districts.

Sonora High Superintendent Mike McCoy, who has said consolidating local districts would likely save money, praised the Sonora High board Tuesday.

"We have to remember that we are stewards of public money," McCoy said. "And any time we can look at cost savings, we need to do that."

Summerville High's board will discuss the proposed study at its meeting tonight, which is scheduled for 6:30 in the school library.