School merger talks on

Written by Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat March 08, 2013 08:58 am

The discussion about reorganizing school districts in Tuolumne County is moving forward, albeit slowly. 

A group of Tuolumne County voters plans to collect thousands of signatures and put the question of school district unification on the 2014 ballot, with the goal of creating a “Tuolumne County Unified School District.”

The 10-member group came together in January, concerned local schools are duplicating their administrative costs and wasting money. 

Committee members met Thursday to strategize about starting the process of unification, a complicated procedure that failed in Tuolumne County about a decade ago.

The group’s formal title is the Tuolumne County Committee for Unification of Resources for Education, or TuCCURE — a play on the name of TuCARE, a Twain Harte-based organization that works on behalf of the cattle, logging and mining industries.  

TuCCUREs’ ranks include retired businessmen, two retired teachers and an active teacher. Casey Littleton, a Sonora Elementary School board member and longtime advocate of local school district reorganization, joined Thursday’s meeting. 

TuCCURE’s members say their motives aren’t to reduce the amount of money going to schools — just slash top-heavy administrative costs and channel more funding into classrooms. 

Eight of 11 Tuolumne County school districts share superintendents. Including Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Joe Silva, each superintendent earns a six-figure base salary, for a total of almost $1.2 million this year.

By comparison, Calaveras County — which enrolls roughly the same number of students as Tuolumne County — has five superintendents whose combined salaries will amount to less than 60 percent of what Tuolumne County superintendents earn. 

“I don’t believe they’re sitting at their desks with their feet up,” said David Munson, a TuCCURE member and retired mail carrier living in Tuolumne. “It just think it’s inefficient. They’re doing the same work 10 times.” 

A central goal of the committee is hiring only one superintendent for the entire county, according to Domenic Torchia, a former Board of Supervisors candidate helping lead the effort.

But the process of even launching a merger is what Torchia described as “daunting.”

California law allows the unification of multiple school districts to start in one of two ways: The approval of each school board or the collection of signatures from 25 percent of voters within each district.

For Sonora Union High School District, which contained 22,416 voters as of Jan. 30, that would amount to about 5,600 signatures. But those voters could also sign petitions for the elementary school districts where they reside. 

Torchia said TuCCURE is seeking grant money for a comprehensive study of unification, but it may start gathering signatures before the study is complete. He’s hopeful the petition will persuade school board members to jump on board. 

Following the receipt of petitions signed by either voters or school board members, Silva would review it for compliance with deadlines and other rules.

The proposal would then go to both the Tuolumne County Board of Education and the California State Board of Education, which would have the authority to call an election even if the county board denied it. 

The state board rejected a 1999 proposal to unify Sonora Union High School District with its elementary feeder districts, partly on the grounds that local school districts opposed the merger. 

Littleton said opposition still exists among school board members, but parents seem more receptive and have been calling him to ask how they can help.

“The community is really embracing it, and there’s a lot of different people getting involved in the conversation,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the Tuolumne County Office of Education still plans to seek funding from the nonprofit Sonora Area Foundation for a study on combining Sonora High and Summerville High into one district. 

The research will show whether the two would save money by joining, a question that Silva said is without a clear answer at the moment. He has said a 2000 study already proved that unifying high schools with their feeder districts would cause financial losses. 

But he recently told the members of TuCCURE his office can neither advocate on behalf of consolidation nor discourage it, instead leaving it up to voters. 

Silva’s staff proposed the study to the Sonora High and Summerville High school boards in late January, citing the desire to give them control of the debate about district reorganization. 

Both boards indicated they would like to see the research done, though Summerville High School staff immediately said combining districts could cause students to leave Summerville for Sonora High’s sports programs. 

The merger study would be written by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state-funded agency that advises school districts. It would cost $15,000 and likely take six months, a longer time than Silva’s initial estimate. 

He said his office can’t supply the money because it has its own expenses to worry about. He said Wednesday that he plans to get the proposal into the Foundation’s hands this week. 

The subject of school district consolidation hasn’t resurfaced at Summerville High or Sonora High board meetings after the study was proposed in January. 

Following the research, Summerville High and Sonora High’s boards would decide on next steps, if any, Silva said.