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School district mergers must be more than talk

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Foothill districts should consider cost-cutting idea It’s good that Auburn-area schools officials are openly talking about reorganization, as they did last week in an information workshop hosted by the Placer County Office of Education. Now it’s time to turn talk into action. At a time when every education dollar is precious, and residents and taxpayers are hungry for improved efficiency and accountability throughout government, foothills school districts must make an honest effort to research district consolidation that makes sense. The greater Auburn area, defined as the city and areas north and east, is served by six school districts and 13 schools that feed into the Placer Union High School District. Combined, these schools enroll less than 5,000 students, while the high school district alone serves about 4,500 students. Four of the districts – Alta-Dutch Flat, Placer Hills, Foresthill and Colfax – have only two small schools each, while Ackerman School District boasts one school, Bowman, serving children in kindergarten through eighth grade. Auburn Union Elementary has four schools. Small districts have their advantages. Teachers and administrators are closer to students, and school boards represent a smaller section of the population than in large districts. Local concerns are sure to be heard, and likely get greater attention. But small districts can be more expensive to run. Each is led by a superintendent or superintendent/principal, and each has separate office staff. Buying power is limited. Efficiencies in staffing are harder to find. Resources have to be stretched razor thin to avoid impacting the classroom. And small district school boards often get mired in personnel issues that likely would be handled administratively in larger, unified districts. The main reason for consolidation remains financial. “We all realize, with a 20 percent budget cut, the schools are hurting and there’s nowhere else to cut,” Ken Tokutomi told the Auburn Journal at last week’s workshop. Tokutomi is a trustee on the Placer County Board of Education, the organization that monitors the fiscal accountability of county schools. “The fact is, funding has been reduced for our schools and it seems like it’s going to stay that way,” added Ken Nittler, Auburn Union school trustee. “Unification seems to be one way to stretch existing dollars.” Tokutomi and Nittler get it, especially in taking the long view on school funding by the state. California’s current cash crunch is not going away anytime soon. When it does improve, schools will be in line with other services for the available funds – despite constitutional guarantees in Proposition 98. Local school boards should do more than ponder the issue. They should take steps now to hammer out district mergers that make sense for students and community. Should Auburn Union and Placer Hills join together? Does it make sense for Alta-Dutch Flat, Colfax and Foresthill to merge? Where does Ackerman fit in? Long term, is a unified school district merging elementary and secondary schools the best solution? As so, total enrollment of a Placer Unified School District would still be less than many districts in the greater Sacramento area. School leaders should act with urgency to begin the process of reorganization, and then act thoughtfully and carefully in laying out the plan. Unlike a school closure, such as last year’s shuttering of Alta Vista, district mergers must be approved by voters. The timing is right.