Union Democrat staff

More than 11,600 Tuolumne and Calaveras county public school students began classes this week.

It's an end-of-summer ritual that dates back generations and decades. It's a chance to renew friendships, meet new teachers and begin or build on a years-long learning process that, ideally, will lead to careers, accomplishment, and even fame and fortune.

But the 2010-11 school year also begins with challenges unlike those faced here in the past. They are challenges and could impact the very mission of our schools.

• Enrollment in the two counties is as low as it has been in 20 years

and, because most school funding is based on attendance, there will be

serious financial consequences.

• Sacramento's budget crisis has brought $5.7 billion in statewide

education cuts in this fiscal year alone. When added to previous

reductions since the recession began, it adds up to a $12 billion hit

for California's school system - which is already among the nation's

worst based on per-pupil spending.

• Local schools and districts have already eliminated some three

dozen teaching positions and have absorbed budget cuts ranging from

hundreds of thousands of dollars for several smaller districts to about

$2 million apiece for the Calaveras Unified and Sonora Union High

School districts.

Yet there is good news among the gloom.

• First, Tuolumne and Calaveras county teachers are doing their jobs well with far fewer resources available.

Just released released Standardized Testing and Reporting scores

for 2009 show that schools here are performing better than their

counterparts statewide in most areas. Although STAR scores vary from

district to district, campus to campus and even class to class, most

schools in the two counties continued to improve on both their own

previous scores and in relation to other schools around the state.

That this can be accomplished amid the worst economic conditions in

decades is a credit to our teachers and administrators, and should be

encouraging for students and parents.

• Tuolumne County Districts are continuing to explore savings that

can be realized by sharing bus service, fleet maintenance, mechanics,

gas-purchase contracts, dispatchers and more. Implementation of a

formal transportation-sharing plan could come by the beginning of 2011,

said Mike McCoy, Sonora High School District superintendent and head of

a county committee looking into cash sharing.

Other areas in which cooperation will be examined include building

and grounds, heating and air conditioning repair, and food service


• Although cut programs and crowded classrooms are part of the

state's educational landscape these days, most music and athletic

programs have survived in local schools.

And, once on the chopping block, Sonora High School's successful

adult education program was spared for the 2010-11 year. "It's a

mission critical to the community" in these difficult economic times,

said Superintendent McCoy.

• Despite previous and well-documented problems, the Big Oak

Flat-Groveland School board hired a competent, proven and local

superintendent in Jim Frost, longtime chief at the Calaveras Unified

School District. Not only that, but in a rare unanimous vote, trustees

rehired popular and successful soccer coach Doug West.

• Voters and volunteers have come through big time for financially

strapped districts: A $326 million bond issue passed by Yosemite

Community College District in 2004 voters is still paying dividends to

Columbia College. The measure is funding for $52 million in new

construction at the college, including a public safety and child

development centers and, next in line, a satellite campus in Angels.

Also in Angels, incoming students at Bret Harte High School were

greeted by a brand-new swimming pool. It, along with classrooms, labs

and tennis courts, were built with proceeds from an $18 million bond

issue passed by voters in 2008. And a new, $220,000 set of lights just

installed at Sonora High's Dunlavy Field didn't cost the district a

dime. A two-year Sonora High School Foundation fund-raising campaign

paid that bill.

The conclusion?

Yes, times are tough. But through determination, creativity and

community spirit, our schools, as yet another year of classes begins,

are getting the job done.