VC County Committee to study unification of SP school districts

March 19, 2010
Santa Paula News

After testimony from representatives of the city, local school boards and citizens the Ventura County Committee on School District Organization decided Wednesday conduct a study of merging Santa Paula school districts. 

About 70 people attended the March 17 meeting at the Community Center, prompted by last month’s City Council vote to request the study on unifying the area’s two largest school districts.

Committee member Judy Bysshe told the audience, “It is not our job to tell you that you should or should not unify,” but rather to weigh community interest to determine whether or not “to move forward to see if unification is a reasonable possibility.”

Mayor Jim Tovias told the committee he attended local schools. “If I were a parent” of a local school student, “my first question would be why the council is even involved in this, what’s the rush?” The issue, he noted, has been discussed for years, and unification was urged in the city’s 1998 General Plan. Then Board President Tony Perez told the council in November, “Unification should be a decision of the voters,” and Tovias said a study would give voters the information needed to make “an informed decision.”

Attempts to get the two districts to jointly address the issue failed, and Tovias said the council has provided each with a draft resolution “with the hope that each board adopts and requests,” the study to “retain control.” Council, he added, is “simply seeking an unbiased and impartial analysis of the issue to determine if unification should be considered.”

Pluses of unification, according to Rob Corley of Kids First, include shifting dollars into the classroom, and would apply to urban districts only. Per state law, he said, the area’s three rural districts would remain independent by filing such a request.

A small town only needs one superintendent and district office, the existing school boards “have not worked together” and do not share costs or economize. “We need one calendar for all public schools,” and “students lose” due to the lack of curriculum coordination. “One vision, one set of goals, one board, one superintendent,” added Corley, would benefit students and their future.

Santa Paula Union High School District Board President Christina Urias said although the board supports the concept of unification, they are “very concerned with the timing, especially during this period of state budget crisis.” The Santa Paula Elementary School District fiscal crisis is also a concern, and Urias said SPUHSD trustees believe it would be better to wait before proceeding with unification, which Urias said the board believes should include all area districts.

“We, the board, are not against unification” although, said SPESD Trustee Michelle Kolbeck, they do have questions, such as if the districts could afford a two- to three-year disruption as the process moves forward. In addition, the state funding crisis and subsequent budget cuts are already requiring district employees to do more with less, and would have added work to accommodate the unification study.

Potential cost-savings remain to be seen, and in the long run might not be worth it. In addition, Kolbeck said, the SPESD Board also believes all schools should be involved. She added, “Should we ask” the community and schools to concentrate on unification instead of education.

Representatives of the rural Briggs, Mupu and Santa Clara Elementary School districts told the committee they are neutral regarding unification, but each wanted it on the record they would seek to remain independent.

Jeri Mead, a SPESD employee, said, “Our schools are really doing well,” and with the state’s fiscal crisis “this is the worst timing for unification.”

Kids First co-author Marcia Edwards said unification is a “hot button in Santa Paula,” where “turf” is very defined and defended. Although the districts work for the kids, “they don’t work together for the kids... it’s time to change the dynamic” to work, said Edwards, for the “greater good of all kids.”

Kids First Chairwoman Ginger Gherardi said more than one school calendar “disrupts families in the community,” and the boards seem to feel coordinating them is too much trouble. She noted the issue of the expense of an EIR in case of possible unification is moot, as it would warrant a negative declaration.

Steve Smead was critical of SPESD trustees and questioned the district’s projected $3 million deficit and their lack of “foresight... they’ve gone through four superintendents in less than five years,” and districts should join to request the unification study. 

Several more citizens spoke in favor of the study, but Cathy Fernandez said there is a “flaw in the process” without the inclusion of the rural districts, whose voters would help decide unification of the larger elementary district. Schools’ calendars “are unbelievable to some outside of Santa Paula,” and she urged, “Why not save the money and have the districts compromise now” to achieve what unification potentially would.

“It’s a problem to me,” said City Councilman Ralph Fernandez, to exclude the smaller districts from the study. If the schools are not unified, Fernandez encouraged the committee to “come in and see what problems exist and how to resolve them,” including the flight of some students from the reputation-troubled middle and high schools to gain education elsewhere.

Following testimony and their own discussion, the county committee voted unanimously to proceed with the study. After the study is completed and after more public hearings, the county committee will decide whether unification should go to local voters as a ballot measure. 

The state Board of Education considers the recommendation and must make their own ruling. Only if they approve would voters decide unification.

It could be a long process: if the districts do not pass their own resolution supporting a unification ballot measure the council initiated process would take a year longer, with an estimated July 1, 2013 start up for a new district with voter approval.

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