The complex process of school district reorganization
02/17/2011 - This is an editorial written by Steven D. Herrington, Ph.D., Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools.
There has been much discussion about school district consolidation in recent weeks and many calls by the public to reduce the number of school districts that serve our county. One of my functions as Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools is to disseminate information about the steps that must be taken to submit reorganization proposals and how those proposals are assessed and acted upon.
The process of consolidating districts is defined by state law. Each county has a County Committee on School District Organization that helps implement the law and is responsible for overseeing the organization of local school districts. Here in Sonoma County, this committee is comprised of 11 members—two from each of the five county supervisorial districts and one at-large member. They are elected by representatives from the governing boards of all Sonoma County school districts. The committee’s work is staffed by Sonoma County Office of Education personnel.
The County Committee serves as the local coordinator, analyst, facilitator, and arbitrator for the reorganization of school districts. It responds to official reorganization proposals submitted by the public, studies the organization of local districts, and formulates plans and recommendations for reorganization. In fulfilling these responsibilities, it must meet the legal requirements specified in the California Education Code and State Board of Education policies.
Matters usually come before the County Committee in one of two ways—by citizen petition or public agency resolution.
When a citizen petition is initiated, the percentage of affected property owners who must sign the petition is specified by law; it varies between 10 and 25 percent depending on the type of reorganization proposed. The collection of signatures must occur within a 90-day period and be verified by my office. Once this has taken place, the County Committee is convened to hold a public hearing, study the impact of the proposal, and submit a recommendation to the State Board of Education. The State Board may hold public hearings before approving or disapproving the petition. If approved, my office calls for an election for the proposed reorganization, and for the election of governing board members for any new district approved by voters. This is the process that was followed in 1993, when Windsor became a K-12 unified district.
Districts may, by mutual agreement and through resolutions signed by their governing boards, decide to commission a study that analyzes the advantages and disadvantages of reorganization. This was last done in 2006, when districts in West Sonoma County explored consolidation and decided to maintain their current structure.
One other type of public agency resolution can trigger the County Committee process: resolution by public entities that have overlapping boundaries with school districts. For example, a city council can resolve to study the reorganization of the districts in its jurisdiction. Such resolutions are often initiated based on changing “community identity” as cities grow and develop over time.
Reorganization proposals initiated by resolution go through the same county- and state-level review as one started via citizen petition. It can take two years or more to move through this entire process and seat a newly elected school district board.
Decisions on consolidation, reorganization, or unification are made on a case-by-case basis and are impacted by a wide variety of considerations. For example, there may be geographical boundaries that limit or restrict services in an area proposed for consolidation, or state funding changes linked to a proposed reorganization may benefit one region but compromise the level of service in another.
Three conditions are needed for successful consolidation, reorganization, or unification: agreement within the community, economic benefit, and enhancement of the educational program. If all three conditions are in place, then reorganization is a better educational option for the community.
Sonoma County Committee on School District Organization