Should Sonoma County merge its school districts?
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.