Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

The Summerville Union High School District Board of Education expressed interest Wednesday in seeing a study on the possible benefits of merging with Sonora Union High School District.

The board unanimously approved the idea of a study, which would show whether joining the two districts might save money and benefit students. Sonora High's board voiced interest in the study at its own meeting Tuesday.

However, two community members said during the Summerville High meeting that they were concerned about any move to join the two schools into one district.

"My big fear is this: If Summerville and Sonora joined, there's going to be a mass exodus from (Summerville), primarily to play athletics," said longtime Summerville Union High School District teacher Lynn Culver.

Culver also said he was puzzled by the discussion's timing after the passage of bond measures for both high schools, totaling $23 million for Sonora High and $8 million for Summerville High.

Summerville High and Sonora High haven't formally considered joining into one school district since the 1960s, according to Sonora High Board of Trustees member and retired teacher Mel Ginn.

At Wednesday's meeting, Tuolumne County Deputy Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin explained the idea of joining the two districts is being floated now due to a"confluence of events."

One event is the upcoming retirement of Summerville High Superintendent John Keiter, who will end his 10 years at the district June 30.

Another factor involved county Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva hearing that an effort to unify all county school districts is under way.

Silva decided to present Summerville High and Sonora High with the possibility of a study to give school boards control of the discussion, Bulkin said.

She and Silva were referring to a grassroots effort by voters who formed a committee this month to strategize on a complete school district reorganization in Tuolumne County.

Domenic Torchia, a former Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors candidate helping organize the committee, told The Union Democrat that its end goal is unification of all schools in the county into one district.

The committee is seeking more members and gathering next week, Torchia said.

By state law, the merger of school districts can start in one of two ways: with a petition signed by at least 25 percent of the voters in each affected school district or by majority approval of each school board.

Speaking on behalf of Silva, Bulkin said he feels school district reorganization is best initiated "at the (school) board level."

"We're just at the information-gathering moment," she said, adding that the actual process of merging high schools into one district would take years and need to pass several barriers before being placed on a ballot.

Silva was unable to attend the Sonora and Summerville high board meetings this week because he was in Washington, D.C., lobbying for federal forest reserve funds.

The study he proposed would be done by either School Services of California or the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, both of which are consultants to school districts. Silva plans to ask the Sonora Area Foundation to fund the study, which could cost $8,000 to $15,000.

It would examine only Summerville High and Sonora High "unionization," a term for the merger of districts that serve the same grade levels. "Unification" is the joining of a high school with its feeder elementary school districts.

Several supporters of school-district reorganization in Tuolumne County were present at Wednesday's Summerville High meeting, though none made public comments.

One was Teri Gearhart, a retired Fresno teacher whose grandson attended Twain Harte schools. She said she was shocked to discover that the small school had both a superintendent and principal.

Summerville High parent Greg Brown said the joining of Summerville High with Sonora High into one district would be "okay" - but unifying all Tuolumne County districts would be better.

"There's been a drumbeat of 'unify, unify, unify' for a long time in the county," Keiter said.

Keiter told The Union Democrat that the plan to study a merger of Sonora High and Summerville High won't affect the timeline for seeking his successor at Summerville, though it may deter potential applicants.

Tuolumne resident Janice Elliott, the mother of Summerville High graduates and grandmother to a current student, said she served on "the original committee" that convened decades ago to determine whether Summerville High should combine with Sonora High into one district.

Summerville High decided against the idea at that time, she said.

"We're very proud of our high school and it's very special to us," Elliott said. "Are our children going to be sent elsewhere? This was one of the items that came up for us."

"We have a lovely school," Elliott said. "… I would guard it very dearly, what it is."