State plan threatens our schools |

State plan threatens our schools

We’re a county that traditionally has set high expectations for its schools. Test scores are competitive with some of most affluent communities in the state. Newcomers tell us that a main reason they moved to Nevada County was its system of education.

That’s why the proposal by the governor’s California Performance Review to eliminate the state’s 58 county offices of education and replace them with 11 regional supercenters sounds like a bad deal for counties such as ours.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team said the move could save the state as much as $45 million over the next five years. We are not holding our breath. As Sacramento has amassed more and more control over school funding, the result has been an increasingly bloated and wasteful state bureaucracy that is out of touch with local needs. Regional “supercenters” are likely to continue that trend.

For example, the Performance Review also suggests creating a new bureaucracy for Schwarzenegger’s pal, former L.A. mayor and now Secretary of Education Richard Riordan. (The Nevada County superintendent of schools, Terry McAteer, told The Union, “I don’t know what he does.”). They’re also suggesting a separate governmental behemoth called “Workforce Preparation” that would direct education policy for all levels. It is likely that the cost of this so-called “streamlining” will eat up any savings from closing down the county offices of education.

But our main objection to this plan is not the money. It’s that the interests of a small foothill county are likely to be lost in the shuffle of a regional education “supercenter” based in Sacramento and serving the booming growth areas of Placer and Eldorado counties.

No other state has county education offices. They were created a century ago to help California districts manage their finances and run their schools. With funding control shifting to Sacramento, county superintendents have taken on other roles. In Nevada County, McAteer’s office provides special-education services for students in kindergarten through 8th grade, arbitrates truancy hearings, approves each district’s budget, and oversees Nevada County public access television and the Imaginarium science program, among other roles.

We don’t know how county education offices have worked in other counties, but it has certainly worked here. McAteer keeps a close eye on the needs of the local schools (even teaching a class himself each year), and has reacted quickly to help find solutions in troubled budget times. He also has shown skills in leading adversaries to common ground. We doubt that could be done from Sacramento, even if the willingness were there.

Those who drafted the governor’s recommendations worked behind closed doors, and were required to sign secrecy agreements. Even now, we don’t know who actually participated in the report, inside or outside government. The front man, Carl DeMaio, head of an outfit called the Performance Institute, has pledged that in coming months there will be an opportunity for “ample debate” on the plan.

We haven’t heard the administration commit itself to heeding the public opinion, although five open hearings have been scheduled. Fortunately, the closing of county education offices would require a constitutional amendment, and could not be done till 2007, so that leaves time for Nevada County officials and other concerned citizens time to try to head things off.

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