Presented with some of the first hard numbers on the cost of consolidating Grass Valley and Nevada City schools, the members of those districts’ respective boards voted unanimously Tuesday to continue to explore the possibility of a merger.
“I haven’t seen anything that has made me not want to continue exploration,” said Frank Bennallack, a member of Grass Valley’s school board.
Tuesday’s meeting was the third joint meeting since they began consolidation talks in the spring amid county-wide declining enrollment and years of budget reductions from the state.
However, this meeting was the first time preliminary cost projections and a possible facilities use plan was presented publicly.
“A lot of this stuff is all things we have heard at meetings in the last few years, but now we’re in there, and it’s a lot less theoretical,” Bennallack said.
With a combined enrollment of more than 2,600 students, Grass Valley Superintendent Eric Fredrickson presented two conceptual facility configurations.
The first configuration calls for Grass Valley’s Margaret Scotten elementary to add a fifth grade, as would Nevada City’s Deer Creek Elementary. Lyman Gilmore would then house grades six through eight.
Each district’s charter schools would continue functioning as they do now, and Grass Valley’s Bell Hill Academy would remian a global studies elementary, but it would also add a fifth grade.
The biggest change would be at Nevada City’s Seven Hills middle school, which would become a kindergarten through eighth grade campus — something neither district currently offers.
More than 75 percent of the families who transfer students out of Nevada City’s schools cite Union Hill’s offering of a kindergarten through eighth grade model, which allows for children to remain on one campus for a longer duration, said Nevada City Superintendent Roxanne Gilpatric.
Grass Valley Board member Bonnie Taylor indicated that Grass Valley’s transfers are similar.
Both Grass Valley and Nevada City have separate elementary and middle schools, which can sometimes require parents with multiple children to take them to different locations.
Having a K-8 school might help retain students, Fredrickson said.
“It seems it would be wise for us to beef up a pre-school programs (too),” said Paula Roediger, Grass Valley’s board president.
The other configuration model Fredrickson presented would have all campuses remain functioning as they are.
“This is just conceptual, based on discussions and not deep analysis,” Fredrickson cautioned. “This is very skeletal, it is just a concept of what could work... At least now we have a framework to start from.”
While school configuration assumptions help determine projected costs, more than 80 percent of both districts’ expenditures are related to personnel.
Based heavily on conservative assumptions, the cost of bringing staffing salaries into alignment could be more than $465,000, estimated Donna Fitting, who handles business services at the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools’ office, which is facilitating the joint meetings.
A large portion — $257,846 or about 55 percent — of that cost is due to the difference in the two schools’ health and wellness benefits caps.
Grass Valley’s health benefit cap for certificated employees is $5,614 and Nevada City’s is nearly $2,500 more at $8,149, according to the county superintendent’s office.
The two schools also differ on salary schedules. Grass Valley has an 18-step salary schedule with a 3 percent increase for each year a certificated employee remains within the district.
Nevada City has a 25-step schedule with a 4 percent increase per year.
Aligning of those costs would also take a huge administrative effort to negotiate new employee salary schedules, said Holly Hermansen, the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools.
However, some of those increases could be applied over a period of the first few years, said Paula Campbell, Nevada City board president.
“What would likely happen is the two teacher (union) groups would come together and form another association to negotiate with the new district administration on salaries,” Fredrickson said.
The new district would likely have one superintendent, working with an assistant superintendent, Gilpatric said. The salary for those positions has not yet been outlined.
“A lot of parents want you to continue talking about this,” said Nevada City parent Trina Kleist, countering previous opposition to the possible consolidation.
The next steps in the process were also outlined as part of the two boards’ vote to meet again on at 6 p.m. on Dec. 5.
Foremost of those steps is beginning to check off the list of requirements to submit a request for consolidation to the California Department of Education.
Hermansen indicated that she will present an outline of that process at the next meeting.
Fredrickson estimated that if the districts continue to move ahead, without any unforeseen roadblocks, consolidation could take place in about two years, at the earliest, he said.
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