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North Bay schools look to solidifying districts

By Joy Lanzendorfer

As schools struggle for ways to deal with budget problems, the idea of combining the county's 40 districts into just a few that share services and administration seems an obvious source of savings. And that could mean more money for classrooms and higher salaries for teachers.

But some worry that consolidating districts is a threat to the autonomy of individual schools and could make it more difficult for parents to be involved in their children's education.

With enrollment continuing to drop, the Sonoma County Board of Education has commissioned a study looking at whether consolidating West County's 11 districts into one would save money. If it is successful, the board may look at combining the rest of the county as well.

"In West County, three or four districts are sharing superintendents, so we thought it might make sense to look at consolidation for that area," says deputy superintendent Jerry Johnson. The board has hired independent consultants Nigro, Nigro & White to do the $22,500 study. The results will be available in early November.

If the study finds there are no savings in combining the districts, the issue will likely be dropped. If there are savings, the board would conduct another study looking into the impact on curriculum and students. Then, if the results remain compelling, the question would be put to the voters.

"We're not pressing too hard on this," says Johnson. "The timeline of action is so long, there's no point in getting too excited about it."

Enrollment is dropping in West County, which affects funding because state aid is tied to student attendance. Young families are leaving for places where they can better afford housing.

"In this area, housing is so expensive," says Donald Armstrong, superintendent of the Twin Hills Union district. "Starter homes are $500,000. As a young parent, I don't think I could have afforded that."

Whether or not consolidating will actually save the district money is debatable. In fact, there is significant evidence that it won't. Several years ago, a study was done to find out if combining the Twin Hills Union and Gravenstein districts would be cost-effective. "They found that, financially, it was not in anyone's best interest," says Armstrong. "But that might be different now with the declining enrollment."

As is often the case, the study has been met with strong emotions. "There is the fear of lost local power and local control that individual boards have over their students," says Diane Ogden, superintendent of the Montgomery and Guerneville districts. "And that is a real fear. I understand it."

Despite all the emotions invested in this issue, the intent of the study is simply to get information about consolidation and go from there, believes Carl Wong, Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools.

"We are looking forward to the data," he says. "It will help lower some of the emotions around this topic and give it a degree of objectivity."

The Fort Ross school district, which is comprised solely of the Fort Ross School, was the only one to oppose the study outright. Because the district is so isolated geographically, it is concerned about being represented by a district so far away from the day-to-day operations of the school. The district also worries that by becoming part of one large district, it will be forced to take on the financial problems of other schools, according to superintendent Nancy Walton.

"We've been so frugal all these years, and we don't want to lose that," she says.

Fort Ross is also anxious about the possibly of being shut down. If that happened, the kids would have to ride the bus for two hours every day just to go to school. Johnson, however, says this probably wouldn't happen.

But some schools may be shut down. Two years ago, Harmony Elementary School in Occidental closed because there were not enough students. Some districts, like Montgomery in Cazadero, are struggling to keep schools open as it is. With consolidation, closing schools are more likely to be the case.

Historically, Sonoma County has voted to protect its independence. In the 1970s, a statewide act required each county to vote on whether or not to consolidate its districts. At that time, the measure was defeated by a 4-to-1 margin. Now, Sonoma County has more districts than almost anywhere else in California. In fact, only four other counties have more districts: Kern, Los Angeles, San Diego and Tulare counties.

If combining the West County districts is successful, the board may look at consolidating others as well. Santa Rosa and Petaluma are candidates for possible consolidation. Rohnert Park, Sonoma, Cloverdale, Healdsburg and the rest of north Sonoma County will most likely stay the way they are, according to Johnson.

At this point, that is all speculation. The first step is to find out if it's even worth it to go on with the issue.

"Knowledge is power," says Johnson. "So we will keep an open mind and see what develops. Ultimately, this decision would be up to the voters."

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From the October 19-25, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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