The 2008-09 Grand Jury's call for a new look at unifying Tuolumne
County schools, given dropping enrollments and revenue, seems timely
and well advised.
As several past grand juries have, the 2008-09 panel suggests that
savings and additional state income resulting from combined school
districts could bring more cash to the classroom.
But the same rocky economy that helped motivate the Grand Jury's
13-page examination of our present, 11-district system has also
prompted something else: A previously unseen level of cooperation among
Consider this: Tuolumne County today has one fewer district, one
fewer school and four fewer superintendents than it had two years ago.
The Chinese Camp District has merged with Jamestown. Sullivan Creek
School has closed. Belleview and Columbia, Sonora and Curtis Creek, and
Twain Harte and Summerville High are now sharing bosses, collectively
saving hundreds of thousands of dollars. And more trustees are
foregoing meeting stipends and district-paid insurance.
What's more, these moves came without any spurring from the grand juries, petitioners or scathing state reports.
Instead, districts learned to share by necessity: Their hands were
forced by dropping enrollment (more than 1,500 over the past decade)
and income (down millions countywide, forcing elimination of close to
100 Tuolumne County teaching and non-teaching positions).
There may be virtue in cooperation, but first and foremost it was a
matter of survival. Our school superintendents and administrators
should be commended for taking these steps.
While previous grand juries waving the unification and
consolidation flags were often ignored, this year's panel, at least to
some extent, is preaching to the choir.
In past years, schools dismissed jury recommendations, arguing that
consolidation or mergers would bring a loss of local control and a
diluted education. Now, however, superintendents taking on second
districts vow that classroom quality will not be compromised.
If this is true, one must wonder why such moves were not made earlier.
A more relevant question, however, is what to make of the jurors'
recommendation that consolidation (sharing services) and unification
(the actual merger of districts) "be brought to the forefront of pubic
Our districts should continue to explore every opportunity to cut
costs through cooperation. Obvious areas would be business services,
buses, cafeteria and specialized programs like music or art.
Unification, however, should be pursued with more caution. The
process leading to multi-district mergers is long, complex and, at
least in Tuolumne County, politically charged.
Yes, the Grand Jury reports that local schools could get an
additional $3 million in annual per-student payments if unified. But
given the budget crisis in Sacramento, such projections may have
extremely short shelf lives. There are also additional significant
off-setting costs that come with unification
While the idea of combining our 11 districts into one, two or three
larger, unified agencies, has some appeal, launching such an effort
amid a grinding recession - and an endless state budget crisis - is not
Instead, it would be wise to monitor our shared-superintendent
experiments and the Jamestown-Chinese Camp merger before taking any