Terry McAteer: The never-ending conversation about school district consolidation
Nevada County trivia question: What do Blue Tent, Kentucky Flat, Cherokee, Birchville and Mooney Flat all have in common?
Answer: They were each a local school district.
Yes, in the 1880s Nevada County had 38 school districts serving less than 2,000 students. Each mining district had its one-room schoolhouse. Today, Nevada County has nine districts serving about 11,000 students.
One thing is for sure: there is no “magic number” for school districts in a community, as California currently has 977 school districts statewide. Los Angeles Unified, which educates over 600,000 students, has been thought to be too big and unruly to govern and has often considered breaking itself up into multiple districts. On the other extreme is Sonoma County with 40 school districts.
When I was superintendent of Inyo County schools, I oversaw Death Valley Unified School District, the largest school district in area in the state (covering nearly 6,000 square miles) and with only 13 students. Most students in Death Valley Unified travel over an hour each way to reach the district’s one middle/high school with seven students in the town of Shoshone. At Death Valley Elementary School, with its two K-5 students, the teacher serves as bus driver, teacher, cook and janitor and lives next to the school in housing provided by the district. At the other end of the spectrum is Polytechnic High in Long Beach with over 4,300 students on the campus.
California is certainly a unique state with both densely populated areas and large swatches of rural areas. These areas all contain children who need to receive a quality education. How to serve these youth is a never-ending question by local residents and the state legislature. In fact, numerous grand juries and local residents have questioned why Nevada County has so many school districts and can’t consolidate them into one, two or three, save money and streamline the educational system.
Consolidation is certainly an evil word to residents of North San Juan, Union Hill, Clear Creek and Chicago Park who cherish their local schools for their personalized approach to each child as compared to much larger schools. Everyone in Chicago Park knows Dan Zeisler, the beloved superintendent and principal of that school district which educates about 150 K-8 students. Zeisler knows the name of every child in that school, plays cribbage at lunch with numerous students and is in the parking lot after school chatting with scores of parents. This is why many students from Colfax and Grass Valley enroll in Chicago Park so they can have this type of personalized, small town education.
The number and diversity of educational offerings is exactly the reason why Nevada County schools need nine districts. Having a variety of parental choices available for students is what keeps schools at the top of their academic game because student enrollment drives the bottom line. If a school does not keep raising its academic bar, there are numerous other choices for parents to make with their child’s education
Imagine Nevada County with its one school district and a top-down management style: impersonal in nature and without any competition, never having to raise the educational bar for students. Years ago, I taught in San Francisco Unified, which had this exact type of education. No wonder so many private schools now exist in San Francisco and so many parents with school-aged youth fled San Francisco for Marin or San Mateo counties.
Local school districts in this county have consolidated a number of functions so as to use tax dollars more efficiently. School lunches are prepared daily at a central kitchen and distributed to each school. Districts contract with Durham Transportation Service to coordinate and streamline school bussing. Schools also collectively serve handicapped students in a variety of ways so as to best provide these specialized services.
The bottom line is that parental choice is alive and well in Nevada County schools, and so is the concern of insuring that tax dollars are spent wisely.
Consolidation will occur when the parents and community believe it is in everyone’s best interest which is how we have gone from 38 districts to nine. The most recent consolidation of Ready Springs and Pleasant Valley districts into Penn Valley Union School District occurred when both sets of parents and community members realized that consolidation made good academic and economic sense.
Consolidations will continue to occur in the future but they will not be instituted by the State of California, the grand jury, the county committee on school district organization nor the county superintendent of schools.
They will only occur when parents, teachers, students and the local community believe it is in their best interest.
Terry McAteer is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at email@example.com.
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