The Squeeze on Schools

The Santa Rosa Press Democrat in its Thursday, January 22, 2009 editoral indicated “It’s past time to consider merging districts to cut costs”.  The Sonoma County Taxpayers’ Association agrees with this position and has been an advocate of this idea for over eight years.  The Association supported County Superintendent of Schools, Carl Wong in his proposal to the west county school districts to study the possiblilty of consolidation.

We sought and received permission to re-publish the Press Democat editorial.

In Lake County, the Board of Supervisors and education officials plan to study the potential benefits of consolidating the county’s seven school districts.

Seven other California counties already operate with a single school district.  As Lowell Grant, former school superintendent in Upper Lake, told county supervisors earlier this month, ” Having a school district in every little hamlet is antiquated.”  Especially now, with the state’s perpetual budget crisis and, in many areas, declining enrollment.

Faced with more cuts, some school districts may increase class size in elementary schools.  Others may close libraries or eliminate extracurricular programs.  Some districts may shorten the school year.

We’ve asked this before, and we’ll ask it again.  Why not consider consolidation?

Not only would it promote coordination among elementary, middle and high schools, perhaps some threatened classroom programs could be funded with administrative savings.  It’s certainly worth finding out.  After all, a study such as Lake County’s is only the first step in a process that would include approval by state education officials and voters in the local school districts.

Sonoma County has 40 school districts, triple the statewide average, based on enrollment, according to a grand jury report in 2002.  A dozen of the districts have fewer than 250 students, according to the latest county school directory.

A 2006 study commissioned by the Sonoma Couty Office of Education found that combining 11 west county districts would produce savings of a least $200,000 a year.

Some small steps have been taken, such as two Sebastopol-area districts sharing a superintendent.  But the idea of consolidation has gained little traction as districts quibbled with the potential savings and objected to the loss of control.

However, a west county school district would be smaller than a supervisoral district or the Santa Rosa Community College District, perhaps even smaller than the Palm Drive Hospital District, none of which suffer from lack of local control.  The same would be true of combined school districts in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and northern Sonoma County.

The county has combined the functions of the clerk, assessor, public adminstrator and recorder and the auditor, controller, treasurer and tax collector in recent years, combining offices and eliminating a handful of elective posts without any adverse impact on local control.

Now is a good time to weigh the costs and benefits of consolidating some of the county’s 40 school districts.

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