Union Democrat staff

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

our schools.

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

next step.