School enrollment in Tuolumne County is dropping.

Total attendance at the county's public schools has fallen from a high of 8,259 in 1997 to 6,861 today. That's a drop of 1,398, or nearly 17 percent over a decade. Just last year countywide attendance dropped 237 nearly 20 percent of the 10-year drop.

But none of this translates into smaller classes and more personal attention for each student.

Because school funding is based on average daily attendance, the opposite is likely true. Most school districts have so far balanced their budgets through attrition by not replacing retiring teachers. But if enrollment declines continue, layoffs and program cuts may be inevitable, and the quality of education at our public schools could suffer.

So what are the causes of this steady, significant drop, and what can be done about it?

First, Tuolumne County's population has grown only slightly in recent years. Since the 2000 U.S. Census count of 54,501, its population had risen by less than one percent a year through 2006, when the count was estimated at 56,855. Much of that modest gain has been in retirees who bring no school-age children with them.

"There is not a job base for young families, and they can't afford to live here," said Sonora High School Principal Todd Dearden, who saw enrollment at his school drop by 110 to 1,541 last year.

The answer to the problems he cites a revamped economy with better jobs and more affordable housing will not appear overnight. So it is up to Tuolumne County's 12 school districts to continue providing a quality education in the face of enrollment and funding declines.

Laying off teachers should be a last resort. All options for cutting costs elsewhere should be examined first.

The Twain Harte School District, where enrollment has plunged from 853 to 414 since 1993-94, was on the right track when its trustees closed the Black Oak School campus and hired Summerville High School Superintendent John Keiter to take the reins at Twain Harte as well.

The county's 12 districts each have their own superintendents, and many have principals, business managers, maintenance chiefs and transportation directors as well. As students and dollars decline, sharing such resources to meet overhead costs seems like a natural and sensible step.

"Sacrilege," some may cry, seeing such moves as a precursor to unification and the loss of "local control."

But as recently as 2003 the Tuolumne County Grand Jury pointed out the high costs of local control: At that time salaries and benefits for a dozen district superintendents totaled $1.2 million, a figure that has, no doubt, risen significantly since. Fifty-six trustees who then made decisions for more than 20 schools together cost districts $155,909 not including travel and training.

"Rather than making cuts in the classroom, we need to make them at the administration level," said '03 Jury Foreman Norma Powell, urging that unification be reconsidered.

It never happened, as support for the status quo is strong among those in office and behind superintendents' desks.

But how significant, really, is local control? If the few candidates and woeful turnouts at last month's school board elections are any indication, a whole lot of locals are saying no thanks to control.

That said, unification is so politically charged and the process that leads to it is so time-consuming and so steeped in bureaucracy that its chances of coming to pass anytime soon are remote. Still, Tuolumne County's districts should not be scrapping over an ever shrinking pool of students.

Instead the schools should follow Twain Harte's example in cooperating among themselves to minimize overhead and administrative costs so dollars can go where they should to the classroom.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board Publisher Geoff White; editor Teresa Chebuhar; managing editor, news Craig Cassidy; senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.