Should Sonoma County merge its school districts?

As districts continue to face declining enrollment and shrinking budgets, some policymakers are asking why the county has so many districts, and whether it would save money to consolidate.|

School districts by county

Sonoma County has among the highest number of school districts in the state. Here are several Bay Area counties and their number of school districts.

Napa, 5

Solano, 6

Marin, 17

Contra Costa, 18

Alameda, 18

Santa Clara, 31

San Mateo, 23

Sonoma, 40

- Source: California Department of Education

As its schools face declining enrollment and shrinking budgets, local policymakers are asking why Sonoma County has 40 public school districts - and exploring whether they can save money and improve students’ education by consolidating.

Only four counties in the state have more school districts than Sonoma County, which has been carved into an intricate, often overlapping mosaic of public agencies responsible for educating nearly 70,000 students enrolled in transitional kindergarten through 12th grade. Most of those students will begin the new school year this week.

Advocates for change say merging districts would help reduce administrative costs while creating consistency in curriculum and instruction.

Critics, though, say that comes at a cost. They say districts could lose their independence and risk school closures if they consolidate and form larger districts.

Only four of the state’s 58 counties - Los Angeles, San Diego, Kern and Tulare - have more school districts than Sonoma County. Nearby Solano County, which has almost the same number of students as Sonoma County, has only six districts.

The issue of consolidating with neighboring elementary districts has come up for discussion in recent months in the West County Union High School District, which has been wrestling with budget shortfalls caused by state funding reductions as a result of declining enrollment and an increase in employee health and pension costs, according to Diane Landry, the school board president.

“With current budget challenges, it seems irresponsible not to explore the feasibility of all potential options of delivering education in the west county that might strengthen the education system for students and reduce costs,” board Trustee Kellie Noe said in an email.

“At this point, we are looking at the feasibility of many different options, this one (district consolidation) being one that has come up over the past few months,” Noe said.

At Santa Rosa City Schools, the county's largest district with about 16,000 students and 24 schools, a board trustee has asked staff members to explore consolidation.

While some districts have expressed interest in merging, the feeling isn’t shared by all, particularly those in smaller districts that want to preserve their own culture and local control.

At the close-knit Monte Rio Union School, Principal Nathan Myers knows all his students and their siblings and parents by name. Families often approach him directly with questions and feedback.

“That’s the beauty of working here,” said Myers, who also serves as superintendent of the school district that oversees the 90-student, K-8 campus.

Monte Rio Union, which has an operating budget of $1.5 million, is one of several tiny, rural school districts in the county that have maintained their independence over the decades.

“It seems like it would make sense to cut administrative costs, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts not many people would like it,” Myers said of district consolidation. “To (small communities), the cost isn’t the issue. The issue is the local control.”

Small districts are an anachronism dating back to when California became a state in 1850. Each village or small town ran its own one-room schoolhouse, but a push to unify schools into larger districts began in the early 20th century, according to Bruce Fuller, professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley.

“It was seen as a modern, more efficient way to run schools so we wouldn’t have so many little districts,” Fuller said.

From the late 1950s to the 1970s, the state also provided districts financial incentives to consolidate, according to Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools. However, the incentives weren’t much of a draw for schools in Sonoma County, which didn’t experience the same rate of population growth as counties in Southern California.

“This is why consolidation is pretty rare in California, because you’re taking on this centuries-old tradition of local control,” Fuller said. “The politics of consolidating can get pretty ugly.”

In 2011, the Sonoma County Grand Jury studied school district consolidation. It found the county had more school districts per pupil than any other county of similar size.

Education officials from across the county were interviewed for the grand jury’s report, and most agreed the county’s school district configuration was not financially sustainable. At the time, the 40 districts operated under a combined budget of $529.7 million.

A 2006 study commissioned by the Sonoma County Office of Education found that combining 11 west county school districts would produce savings of at least $200,000 a year, though a study later found merging west county’s Twin Hills and Sebastopol school districts would not result in a financial advantage because of state funding formulas.

No new study on local school district consolidation has been done since 2013 when the state passed its new funding model, the Local Control Funding Formula, Herrington said. The model is meant to give districts greater autonomy over spending of state funds on programs and school services.

It’s unclear how much the county would save if all districts consolidated. The districts are expected to spend a total of $1 billion in the 2019-20 school year, according to the county Office of Education.

Jenni Klose, Santa Rosa City Schools board president, is a proponent of consolidating all of Santa Rosa’s school districts into one.

Even her district is technically two districts - an elementary and a secondary, overseeing middle and high school campuses. It is operated under one superintendent and one school board.

Santa Rosa also has the Bellevue Union, Bennett Valley Union, Mark West Union, Oak Grove Union, Piner-Olivet Union, Rincon Valley Union, Roseland and Wright school districts. Many of them feed students into Santa Rosa City Schools’ middle and high schools.

School consolidation is something the Santa Rosa City Schools board has discussed in the past. A fellow board member - Omar Medina - recently revived the issue, requesting the district put together a report on consolidation, Klose said.

“It’s a discussion that comes up every decade,” said Frank Pugh, who served on the Santa Rosa City Schools board for ?28 years and is former president of the National School Boards Association. “But in all the years I was on the board there never really was a parent group that came to the board and demanded we consolidate districts.”

Uniformity in curriculum and staff professional development is a concern with having multiple school districts in Santa Rosa, a city of about 175,000, Klose said. Districts also end up competing for the same small pool of experienced teachers and specialized positions, she said.

When she mingles with education officials from outside the area, Klose said the number of school districts in Sonoma County often shocks them.

“There’s got to be a champion, a citizens-driven effort to start a campaign” in order for school consolidations to happen in Sonoma County, she said.

Fuller said it may not be cost effective to run school districts with 10 or fewer schools, although districts with more than 30 to 50 schools may become more bureaucratic and less personal.

“There’s a sweet spot in between,” Fuller said. “You don’t want schools to start to look like the DMV.”

Cynthia Evers, Rincon Valley Union school board president, said consolidation is complicated. In her 20 years on the board, she couldn’t recall the issue ever coming up on an agenda.

“The biggest reason why we haven’t talked about merging with Santa Rosa City Schools is that we’re really an elementary district,” Evers said. “Our focus isn’t about Friday night football. We focus on teaching our kids to read and write and be effective citizens for when they go to middle and high school.”

About 1,320 students are enrolled in the Rincon Valley district, according to the California Department of Education.

Families value the small district and its open-door culture, Evers said. They feel like they can approach district officials directly, she said.

About two years ago, the Monte Rio school district proposed moving its middle school students to neighboring Guerneville School, a K-8 school with about 260 students. Although the districts weren't consolidating, it was viewed as a step in that direction.

“We didn’t go far in the process because the pushback was so great at board meetings,” said Dana Pedersen, Guerneville superintendent.

She said some fear that consolidation could lead to small communities losing their schools if they forfeit control to a larger district, especially with enrollment declining countywide because of the high cost of living, shifting demographics and wildfire and flood impacts.

“We are able to expedite very quickly what our stakeholders want,“ Pedersen said.

Monte Rio Union and Guerneville feed students into the West Sonoma County Union High School District, which oversees Analy and El Molino high schools.

They’re among several small districts that pair with the high school district to share specialized staff members under the West County Special Education and Special Services Consortium. Special education teachers are shared between the 1?0 schools under the consortium, and the 10 superintendents meet once a month.

“That’s why I think these smaller districts are able to sustain themselves,” said Mary Schafer, West Sonoma County Union chief business official.

If West County Union consolidates with its neighboring elementary school districts, the process could take years. It would require many steps, including putting the matter on a ballot, securing voter support, conducting studies and navigating the complexities of reorganizing budgets, staff, board members and collective bargaining units.

“I believe that consolidating some districts would be educationally and financially advantageous,” Schafer said.

Former Sonoma County Superintendent Carl Wong about a decade ago recommended school district consolidation, a recommendation that, like the 2011 grand jury report he helped spur, resulted in no action, according to multiple local education officials. Wong could not be reached for comment.

Herrington, the current county superintendent, said if district consolidation were to happen in Sonoma County, it would be best for districts to partner with similarly funded districts.

Schools with more students who qualify for low or reduced lunch receive supplemental grants from the state, which may disappear if they pair with a district that relies more on local community funds.

“It is being discussed, and I know there’s interest in more than one district,” Herrington said.

School districts by county

Sonoma County has among the highest number of school districts in the state. Here are several Bay Area counties and their number of school districts.

Napa, 5

Solano, 6

Marin, 17

Contra Costa, 18

Alameda, 18

Santa Clara, 31

San Mateo, 23

Sonoma, 40

- Source: California Department of Education

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