School merger study nixed

Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

The Sonora Area Foundation has turned down the Tuolumne County Office of Education's request for a study on merging Summerville High and Sonora High into one district, the latest setback for advocates of school district reorganization.

Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva asked the foundation to fund the study last month, after his staff presented the idea to Sonora and Summerville trustees.

Both school boards were interested in the study. But the Sonora Area Foundation's own nine-member board voted unanimously to reject the proposal about two weeks ago.

"They just felt that the study could get them too close into that political advocacy neighborhood - where under the right circumstances, that could be a threat to the nonprofit status of the organization," said Sonora Area Foundation Executive Director Ed Wyllie.

To stay a nonprofit, the foundation must follow Internal Revenue Code regulationsthat prohibits nonprofits from funding political campaigns or candidates, he said.

The board was concerned that future school board candidates might use the study in their campaigns.

"They understand why the (high school) boards wanted to do the study," Wyllie said. "They simply felt it wasn't appropriate for them to fund."

Silva said he will not pursue the study further. He also said his own office can't pay for it because it has its own expenses to worry about.

But he isn't the only one who has asked the Sonora Area Foundation to fund research on school district reorganization.

A group of consolidation proponents, led by former Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors candidate Domenic Torchia, requested funding for a study on unifying all Tuolumne County schools into one district.

The Sonora Area Foundation's board will consider that proposal later this month.

In 2000, the foundation funded a much broader study on how Tuolumne County schools could run more efficiently and "better serve their students." That study request came through the Tuolumne County Grand Jury at a time when the movement to consolidate schools had taken off.

The 2000 study found that school districts were duplicating many expenses. Tuolumne County school districts responded by sharing superintendents and taking other cost-cutting steps, like bidding for propane on a collective basis, Silva said.

Silva proposed the idea for a high school merger study after learning of Torchia's effort to unify all Tuolumne County school districts, according to his staff. They said Silva wanted to give school boards control of the discussion.

The study on merging the high school districts would have been done by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state-funded agency that advises school districts.

It would have cost $15,000 and taken about six months, examining only the fiscal impacts of a school district merger, Silva said.

Sonora High Superintendent Mike McCoy has said he believes school district consolidation would cut down on administrative costs. Retiring Summerville Superintendent John Keiter, who at $207,000 a year is the highest-paid school superintendent in the county, said the 2000 study showed consolidation wouldn't save any money.

Silva's new study proposal created immediate concern at Summerville High, where some staff members said merging districts with Sonora High would cause athletes to leave Summerville for Sonora's athletic programs.

Sonora High Trustee Mel Ginn said Tuolumne County residents already turned down a bid to merge high school districts decades ago - and that they'd turn it down again.

Meanwhile, though, Sonora High and Summerville High are moving closer in some ways.

When Sonora High staff asked local technology company Front Porch to fund a summer "boot camp" for honors students, they said Summerville students could participate too.

Also, this Saturday, students from the two schools will come together at the Sonora High gym for what they describe as the first school dance to include both Sonora and Summerville High.

The Union Democrat
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