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Close to Home: The complex path to school consolidation

Following The Press Democrat’s recent editorial encouraging a reduction in the number of school districts in Sonoma County (“School district mergers deserve consideration,” Aug. 20), I have been approached by community members who are curious to know what it would take to make this happen. I hope the following information will shed some light on school district reorganization for anyone curious to know more.

School district reorganization is a complex and often lengthy process, with numerous steps required by state law. There are two main ways that school districts can be combined. Consolidation occurs when two or more districts with the same grade spans are combined into one district. Unification takes place when one or more elementary school districts are combined with a high school district.

The process takes a dedicated communitywide effort that can last years. In Sacramento County, voters approved a measure merging Grant Union High, Rio Linda, North Sacramento and Del Paso Heights school districts into the Twin Rivers Unified School District in 2007. This was the culmination of a process that spanned almost 10 years and included multiple grand jury reports and stop-and-start efforts. The most recent high school district unifications, in Ventura and ?Tulare counties, became effective in 2013, according to California Department of Education records.

District reorganization is overseen by each county’s Committee on School District Organization. The committee is comprised of members from each of the five county supervisorial districts and one at-large member. Members are elected to four-year terms by representatives from the governing boards of all the Sonoma County school districts. The committee’s work is staffed by Sonoma County Office of Education employees.

Proposals for reorganization can be initiated in one of several ways: by the county committee: by local agencies that govern the impacted area, such as city councils or the Board of Supervisors; by school district governing boards in the area proposed to be reorganized; or by a petition of registered voters within the affected territory. My position, the county superintendent of schools, isn’t authorized to initiate the process. My office is charged, by statute, to independently review electorate petitions for sufficiency and, if directed by the county committee, call for an election on the proposed reorganization.

Citizens can initiate consideration of a reorganization with a petition signed by 25% of registered voters within the territory proposed to be reorganized. In some cases, a petition signed by 10% of registered voters can be used to initiate the process. Once the petitions are validated, the committee convenes public hearings, studies the impacts of the proposal and ultimately submits a recommendation to the state Board of Education.

The state board generally holds public hearings before acting on a petition and evaluates the impacts under specific criteria in the Education Code. If approved, then an election is called. Reorganization proposals initiated by resolution go through a similar process.

Decisions on reorganization are impacted by a wide variety of considerations specific to each case. For example, there may be geographical boundaries that limit or restrict services in an area proposed for consolidation, or state funding changes linked to a proposed reorganization may benefit one region but compromise the level of service in another. As well, considerations such as traffic and environmental impacts must be taken into account.

I hope that this information assists communities in evaluating the interest in consolidation or unification. More information is available at scoe.org/pub/htdocs/county-committee.html.

Steven D. Herrington is Sonoma County superintendent of schools.

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