Education, Money, and the Grand Jury

What a week it was, and I am not just talking about Michael Jackson’s tragic and sad death…A newly released Civil Grand Jury Report titled, “Who Really Benefits from Educational Dollars?” (Hint: It’s not the students), and the calculated demise of the 117-year-old school/district known as Montebello, were discussion points at weekend gatherings.

The concomitant savings, with the death knell of Montebello, are $450,000 of public money annually.  In the Santa Clara County Grand Jury report, Finding #6 states, “The operation of 34 K-12 school districts and four (4) community college districts creates excessively high management and administrative costs.” The Grand Jury Recommendation #6 reads, “A consolidation of districts should be considered to reduce the numbers and costs of Superintendents / Chancellors, Boards of Trustees, administrative staff and overhead.”

These two issues dovetail nicely and will juice up the prospects for what I hope to be a very fertile dialogue among regular bloggers to this weekly column on education issues. Many times I have agreed with those bloggers who look for ways the educational bureaucracy can save taxpayer dollars. Some say I constantly ask for more money for education when I believe truth is I ask that all educational tax dollars get spent wisely and not wastefully. My strong wishes would be to create the leanest and meanest school/district with the highest level of achievement for ALL students as assessed with world-class rigorous standards.

I agree with the many of the regular blogger’s sentiments that we have too many school districts in Santa Clara County at a cost to the taxpayers of redundant expenditures. Not a good thing especially in these austere budgetary times. So I thought this would be an opportune time to examine the facts.

Today in Santa Clara County we have 31 total school districts serving kindergarten through twelfth grade.  Twenty are elementary districts (K-8th), 6 are unified districts (K-12) and 5 are high school districts (9-12). Several questions must be asked at this point:

When is a district too small to exist? 

Montebello had nine students during the 2008-09 school year. Lakeside Joint School District has 89 students, Loma Prieta Union has 450, Luther Burbank has 524, and Orchard Elementary has 802. These districts with 901 or fewer students are called Direct Service Districts and are served in large measure by the Santa Clara County Office of Education.

When is a district too large to exist?

The largest elementary school district in Santa Clara County is Cupertino with 16,971 students. The largest unified district is San Jose with 30,912 students. The largest high school district is East Side Union with 26,008. In comparison, Los Angeles Unified enrollment for 2008-09 was 688,138 students.

Which district configuration works the best for the goal of increasing student achievement?

In Santa Clara County we have 3 basic district configurations elementary, unified, and high school.

How difficult is it to move from a elementary district to unified or from a high school district to a unified district?

It seems I can make a strong prima facia case that it makes a great deal of sense, if starting from scratch, to create a unified districts K-12 the size of San Jose Unified. Yet in SCC we have a patchwork system created over scores of years. How difficult is it for the voters to heed the recommendation made by the GJ?

I think it would be instructive to review the efforts that led to a vote of Moreland School District and all districts that feed into the Campbell Union High School District in June of 1999 on Moreland’s effort to unify as a K-12 district.  This was the last time in Santa Clara County that there was a unification vote.  I wonder if the time is becoming more ripe for another district led unification referendum?

At a three-day strategic planning session in 1995 one of the agreed to actions was to create an encompassing community of learners preschool through adult and to make Moreland Elementary into Moreland Unified. To accomplish this strategic planning goal, authorized by Moreland’s Board) the State Board and the SCC Committee On School District Organization would need to set the voting region. After several years of debate and legal opinions it was decided that there would need to be a vote taken by effected districts and the registered voters interested enough to come out in a special election to the polls. Moreland naively thought the vote would just take place in their jurisdiction.

After four arduous years of planning by Moreland and the opposition to Moreland’s effort for unification the plebiscite was held and the dream of becoming a K-12 district with its own two high schools, Prospect and Camden, was defeated. The vote on June 9, 1999 on Measure A for Moreland Unified Ordinance Governance: Incorporation/Formation/Annexation was 45.9% (2,931) for unification, losing by 4.2%.

Even though many of us probably agree with the Grand Jury #6 Findings and Recommendation, it is almost impossible to redraw the districts in a manner that makes the most economic and result oriented sense (student achievement) if we must rely on voters to determine the end result. With that said maybe the Grand Jury is on to something that should be studied more thoughtfully and carefully. However, in the end I would say the local district turf will always be too protected to ever be penetrated with common sense. But these are extraordinary times. Montebello existed with fewer than 50 students for 117 years, but wise adults got together in grief to realize its end was better for all. The resultant savings of $450,000 of taxpayer dollars makes very good sense to me. Everyone wins.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

8 Comments

  1. When looking at a solution, DiSalvo always chooses the path to bigger, bloated agenices to handle the operation.  Joe “No Grades, No Challenges to Youth” DiSalvo always looks for ways to make something bigger and more centralized.  Why not a Five Year Plan, Joe?  How about a Great Leap Forward, Joe?  Joe would have been happy providing Mao with students to help him with his most important daily task.

  2. This is an important conversation to have.  The place to start would be to absorb the 4 districts with single schools into their neighboring districts.  Right there, the savings would be in the millions. 

    Unifying vertically also makes sense, as much is lost in the transition from one district to the next between 8th grade and high school. 

    There is an optimum size above which districts can become too large to effectively introduce new teaching techniques that benefit student learning, but we are far from there in most districts in Santa Clara County.

  3. Certainly, size matters. But a larger issue is the multiple governmental layers of educational bureaucracy…federal, state, county, local. Do the feds, way off in that la-la land of Washington, DC, really know best how to educate students in San Jose? How about Sacramento? Do we really need 2,500 state employees spending over $50 million for the CA Dept. of Educations?

    We should eliminate at least one layer of government educational oversight and use the savings to directly improve the quality of our educational system.

  4. Why is a vote of the people required to eliminate all of this redundant bureaucracy?

    Ah, but it’s not so simple.  I’d bet there are lots of folks out there who would not want to consolidate districts if it meant that their precious little ones would be at the same school as certain other folks’ kids.

    But if numerous districts with their bloated and highly paid district staffs and redundant administrative overlay were consolidated, there really would be no need to change the demographic of any particular school.  You’d just elimnate all those six-figure folks in district offices who add NOTHING the education of our children.

  5. We need to annex all the school districts into one massive district and make Joe the Education Czar.  Czar Joe will eliminate all grades, and also install Diversity Monitors in each school to monitor education and all textbooks.  No textbook will glorify anything that will challenge the diversity of any group, and monitors will be able to interview children to determine if their parents have undermined any of the teachings in the Blue and Red Book, Sayings by DiSalvo.

    Children will also be instructed to inform district personnel of anyone in the neighborhood overheard challenging the district of the Czar, otherwise known as Uncle Joe DiSalvo (we will encourage him to grown a moustache, and wear a uniform).  Commnent or writings that cause stress to children will be banned and prospective parents will be issued certificates in order to conduct monitored and instructed activities in order to have children, and agree to their complete education at local facilities 13 hours a day.

  6. Before drinking the consolidation Kool Aid ya’ll might ask yourself: How effective are large governmental organizations?

    I do not share the confidence of others here that large a school district will operate my neighborhood school more efficiently than a more localized district.

    Then again, San Jose has an interesting history of electing politically ambitious whack jobs to local school boards, both large and small. Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter.

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