For a time it seemed like Tuolumne County's schools would never stop growing.

Public school enrollment in 1995 topped 9,000 and by 1999 was expected to hit 11,000. At the time, according to the California Department of Education, the county had the 14th fastest growing school enrollment in the state.

Our schools were scrambling to cope with the influx of new students. Plans to build new classrooms were quickly drawn up as classes overflowed into libraries and cafeterias.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the 11,000 students we were supposed to have by 1999: Enrollment turned south.

Instead of growing, countywide school attendance dropped from 1995's high of more than 9,000 to about 8,000 in 1999. It has been plummeting ever since and is now in danger of dropping below 7,000. Because state school funding is based on attendance and annual per student payments average about $5,000, this represents a countywide drop of about $10 million a year over the last decade.

In Twain Harte, trustees will tonight consider closing an entire lower-grade school built in the mid-1990s to accommodate expected enrollment increases that never happened.

Amid the countywide drop, two districts are actually growing substantially.

Columbia Elementary School, which has gained 35 students in the past two years and now has an enrollment of 564, recently completed a $24 million expansion project and hopes it can lure even more students.

Sonora Elementary, which has grown by 60 students to 848 in the past four years is considering adding classrooms. Because it's located near the employment hub of the county, Sonora owes much of its growth to students who were transferred from the districts they live in and and enrolled near where their parents work. Nearly 20 percent of the school's students are there on interdistrict transfers.

So now we have one district, Twain Harte, that may close classrooms and another just 10 miles away, Sonora, that is thinking about adding new ones.

This is the face of Tuolumne County education in the 21st Century, complete with its own financial and political demands.

Plummeting enrollments may force schools to lay off teachers or eliminate programs like music or art. The challenge for trustees of the county's 12 districts is to use imagination, cooperation and out-of-the-box thinking to avoid taking steps that will hurt their educational programs.

So far, our schools are doing well:

? At Twain Harte, the proposed closure of Black Oak School is sure to draw protest from parents and students with loyalty to the lower-grade campus. But district attendance has dropped from 852 to 380 since the mid-1990s and good teachers are needed more than half-empty classrooms.

With district Superintendent Mike Brusa leaving after this school year, Twain Harte trustees have also approved a draft agreement under which John Keiter, Summerville High School's top administrator, will also take the reins at Twain Harte. It's another cost-saving measure that could help both districts without jeopardizing quality in the classroom.

? At Summerville Elementary, where enrollment is expected to next year dip to 360 from a 2001 mark of 442, trustees will soon consider doing away with first-year Principal Tom Thompson's position and having Superintendent Leigh Shampain assume his duties. Combining the two posts, a step Sonora Elementary took several years ago, is expected to save $114,000.

? At tiny Chinese Camp School, which even in 1991 had only 27 students, enrollment has dwindled to half of that. It is considering a merger with the Jamestown district so the doors can stay open.

If the enrollment slide continues, our many schools and districts must continue to consider all avenues. Sharing administrators, programs, teachers, buildings, buses and business staffs should all be weighed.

With the quality of education at stake, no option up to and including merger and unification should be ruled out.

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Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.