Christina O'Haver, The Union Democrat

A group of Tuolumne County residents will soon circulate petitions seeking support for its proposal to unify the 11 school districts in the county.

The Tuolumne County Committee for Unification of Resources for Education, or TuCCURE, formed in January with the goal of getting the merger on the November 2014 ballot.

The committee has worked with County Clerk and Auditor-Controller Debi Bautista and County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva to develop petitions.

After directing the committee to make a few minor tweaks, Silva and Bautista recently approved the petitions for circulation.

The group opted to collect signatures from 25 percent of voters within each district rather than seek approval from each school board. Both are options for the unification of multiple school districts under California law.

Domenic Torchia, TuCCURE'S informal leader, said the committee will hold briefings over the next few weeks to prepare volunteers for gathering signatures and registering voters.

There is no deadline for collecting signatures, but the committee hopes to submit signed petitions by the end of this year, according to Torchia.

If people move out of districts before their signatures are certified by the county, their signatures won't count.

"That's why it's important to not let it drag on," Torchia said.

Circulating petitions is the first step in the unification process. If enough signatures are gathered and certified, the proposal will go to the Tuolumne County Board of Education, which will hold public hearings in each district before making a recommendation to the California State Board of Education.

The proposal will go before the state board regardless of the county board's recommendation. The state is not bound by the county's decision but will consider it when deciding whether to put the proposal on the ballot, Silva said.

"The state wants to know what the county board says, because the State Board of Education isn't here," he explained.

The state rejected a 1999 proposal to unify Sonora Union High School District with its elementary feeder districts, partly on the grounds that local school districts opposed the merger.

In recent weeks, Silva visited several school boards to update them on the process and answer questions.

A question raised during Silva's visits is who would be responsible for bond indebtedness if districts consolidated. He said the County Office of Education would likely hire a firm to look into it before sending the proposal to the county and state boards.

"We recognize this effort is very ambitious and we respect somebody wanting to do that," Silva told Summerville Union High School District's board of trustees at the Oct. 9 meeting.

Trustee Dennis Spisak said the public is receiving "misinformation" about whether unification would save money - perhaps the most contentious question in discussions of unification.

TuCCURE members say too much money is being spent on bureaucracy and administration, and that consolidation would bring more money to classrooms.

Tuolumne County schools spent a combined $1.2 million on superintendent salaries last school year, compared with $667,000 in Calaveras County - which serves roughly the same number of students.

But some school officials have said that consolidation would mean a bump in salary schedules for elementary teachers to match those of higher-paid high school teachers.

Silva, who assumes a neutral stance on the issue, told Spisak and other Summerville trustees at the meeting that he does not believe district unification will save money.

He said in addition to raising teachers' salaries, a superintendent overseeing all schools in the county would have to hire people to handle the extra workload.

Summerville High Superintendent Robert Griffith, who previously worked as a principal in Fresno's nearly 15,000-student Central Unified School District, said Friday that the financial argument in support of unification is "one of the weakest."

"You pretty much exchange your local leadership for moving the same number of people with very similar salary ranges to a district level," he said.

Griffith said that during his tenure in Tuolumne County, he has observed a lot of "local pride" in each of its communities.

"The real focal point of each one of those communities is their school," he said. "That may be a hurdle for unification."