UPPER LAKE, Calif. – Officials with Upper Lake's two school districts met Tuesday evening for the first joint discussion about the possibility of unification.
The joint meeting of the Upper Lake Union High School District and Upper Lake Union Elementary School District boards took place at Upper Lake Middle School.
Both the high school and elementary school boards voted unanimously in January to begin studying the process for unifying.
District officials said the elementary district – which includes Upper Lake Elementary School and Upper Lake Middle School – has 533 students, while the high school district, covering Upper Lake High and Clover Valley High continuation school, has 300 students.
Unification of local school districts is a topic that's been discussed many times over the years, and in the case of Upper Lake's schools, the process got going this year once both boards had enough members interested in pursuing the matter, Upper Lake Union Elementary Superintendent/Principal Valerie Gardner told Lake County News.
Lake County Superintendent of Schools Wally Holbrook facilitated the two-hour meeting, with county Superintendent-elect Brock Falkenberg also in attendance, along with Lake County Board of Education members Dr. Mark Cooper and Patricia Hicks.
Holbrook led the 10 board members, their superintendents, staffs and a small number of audience members through the 12 basic steps the two districts must follow if they choose to unify.
He also laid out guidelines for asking questions, urging board members to stay tough on issues but soft on people. Holbrook provided small colored cotton balls to meeting participants, explaining that if they felt upset or wanted to throw something, they could throw the cotton balls.
However, the meeting's tone was positive and constructive, and the only tossed cotton ball was thrown playfully by Holbrook himself at Upper Lake High School Superintendent/Principal Patrick Iaccino.
Holbrook told the boards that Lucerne Elementary School, which covers kindergarten through eighth grade, has chosen not to participate in the unification discussion, citing SB 1537, called the “Thompson Bill.”
“That's an option for them,” Holbrook said. “If they change their mind later, they can certainly do that.”
The bill – which went into effect in 1994 – was written by then-State Sen. Mike Thompson, who now represents a portion of Lake County in the US House of Representatives.
The Thompson Bill made it possible for a high school district to unify without affecting all of its feeder elementary districts.
Specifically, elementary districts are allowed to request that the State Board of Education exclude them from the unification process, allowing elementary schools to exist separately within the boundaries of a unified school district.
Lucerne Elementary Superintendent/Principal Mike Brown – who attended the Tuesday meeting – told Lake County News afterward that the topic of unification has come up about six times in his 24 years with the school.
At one point in the early 1990s a company was hired to do a report on possible unification, but Brown said the report didn't offer a conclusion about whether or not it was a good idea.
The last time an in-depth discussion regarding unification or consolidation within local schools occurred was in 2009, when the Board of Supervisors directed the School District Reorganization Feasibility Task Force to study the possibility of bringing together the county's seven districts.
Toward the end of the county's study, the Lucerne Elementary School Board passed a resolution saying it wanted to stay out of the unification process, Brown said, adding that community members also supported keeping Lucerne separate.
In the 2013 Lake County Grand Jury report, the grand jury urged districts around the county to begin the unification process, estimating there was the potential to save millions of dollars.
In its response to that report, the Lucerne Elementary School Board said it did not agree “that a larger district is necessarily a better district,” raised concerns about potential costs and the need to establish a countywide uniform salary schedule for teachers, and said there was no data to confirm that unification/consolidation would improve the education of the county's students.
Both Brown and education officials at the Tuesday evening meeting pointed to another use of the Thompson Bill by a small district.
Capay Joint Union Elementary School, a kindergarten through eighth grade school located within the boundaries of both Glenn and Tehama counties near Orland, used the bill to opt out of a consolidation with the high school and elementary school in nearby Hamilton City. The Hamilton City schools were unified by voters in fall 2008.
The 12 steps for unification
Holbrook said the first unification step – which sounds simple but requires a great deal of work to make it happen – is for both school boards to approve a petition to unify.
Having the district boards initiate the process, instead of having it come from voter petitions, is the most time- and cost-efficient way to carry out that first step, Holbrook said.
“That's what really starts the formal process,” he said, but for the two boards to take that action, they need to have a lot of information and be confident that they are well-prepared for the decision.
Step two is delivering the petitions to the Lake County superintendent of schools, which Holbrook said he believes will occur after Falkenberg takes office at the start of 2015. The superintendent's job is to make sure the petitions fulfill the requirements and have the necessary information.
In step three, the county superintendent sends the petitions to the county committee – in this case, the Lake County Board of Education – and the California Board of Education. Step four is the scheduling and holding of public hearings in each of the districts involved.
Step five involves a review of the 10 criteria necessary for unification, which Holbrook called “a huge step in this process.”
The 10 criteria, as stated from California Education Code Section 35753(a) through (j) are as follows:
- The reorganized districts will be adequate in terms of number of pupils enrolled.
- The districts are each organized on the basis of a substantial community identity.
- The proposal will result in an equitable division of property and facilities of the original district or districts.
- The reorganization of the districts will preserve each affected district's ability to educate students in an integrated environment and will not promote racial or ethnic discrimination or segregation.
- Any increase in costs to the state as a result of the proposed reorganization will be insignificant and otherwise incidental to the reorganization.
- The proposed reorganization will continue to promote sound education performance and will not significantly disrupt the educational programs in the districts affected by the proposed reorganization.
- Any increase in school facilities costs as a result of the proposed reorganization will be insignificant and otherwise incidental to the reorganization.
- The proposed reorganization is primarily designed for purposes other than to significantly increase property values.
- The proposed reorganization will continue to promote sound fiscal management and not cause a substantial negative effect on the fiscal status of the proposed district or any existing district affected by the proposed reorganization.
- Any other criteria as the board may, by regulation, prescribe.
After that multi-part review comes step six, in which the county committee either suggests approval or denial of unification to the State Board of Education.
Step seven involves the county superintendent of schools sending the State Board of Education his recommendation.
At that point, the school boards can consider applying for a waiver of election in the unification process, as well as a second waiver that allows the county superintendent to appoint the new members of the new district's first board, a process which Holbrook said saves time and reduces costs.
The State Board of Education schedules public hearings as part of step eight and in step nine that board considers the waivers and conducts the hearings.
In step 10, the State Board of Education approves or disapproves the unification petition and waivers, and in step 11 the State Board of Education sends notice of its action to the county superintendent.
Holbrook said step 12 would involve calling a local election for board members, if needed.
While that's the last step in the process, “It's really where I think the real work begins,” Holbrook said.
Board members, staffers ask their own questions
Next, Holbrook shifted the group to asking questions, which district staffers wrote down on large pads of paper.
Board members and staff asked about the potential financial impact of the consolidation to the Lake County Office of Education, which stands to lose $109,000 annually under the Local Control Funding Formula.
That formula gives the Lake County Office of Education $109,000 for each county district in exchange for services such as financial oversight and other support. Holbrook said that will be part of the overall analysis.
Falkenberg said the issue of that funding needs to be followed up on, as the Local Control Funding Formula was put in place since the state established rules for district unifications. “We're making some assumptions which may not actually play out in the long run,” he said.
Other questions related to negotiating new contracts with the employee unions, promoting sound educational performance for the districts' children, whether the five new board members would serve out their current terms or get new terms, what structure the new administration would have, how to address potential increases in facilities costs, when the new district would need to adopt board policies and how the community would be involved.
The next steps involve Falkenberg, Gardner, Holbrook and Iaccino reviewing the questions collected at the Tuesday meeting with a view to getting the answers for the boards in the weeks and months ahead.
At the same time, Gardner and Iaccino are planning to go to their boards in September to seek approval for sending letters to Holbrook's office expressing interest in pursuing unification and asking for assistance.
As the board members and staff were each given 30 seconds to wrap up with any final thoughts, comments reflected an appreciation of the chance to work and learn together in the process.
“This is the first thing that we've done together as boards,” said Upper Lake Union High School Board President Keith Austin. “I'm impressed with both boards.”
Rich Swaney, another Upper Lake Union High board member, said he hoped that – regardless of the outcome of unification – the two boards would meet together at least twice a year going forward.
Upper Lake Union Elementary Board Vice President Mel O'Meara thanked Holbrook, telling him, “I think you've made a huge difference here tonight.”
O'Meara said unification will take a concerted effort and a lot of good will. “I hope we keep up the tone we had tonight.”
Gardner said she knew making such big decisions wasn't easy, as they were talking about a complete restructuring that will impact peoples' jobs.
Iaccino thanked everyone in the room. “Just keep the kids in mind.”
Brown said it was the best, clearest discussion on unification among the half dozen or so he has heard over the years, and told Gardner and Iaccino they have his full support.
He told Lake County News after the meeting, “This was a big, big step, the two boards sitting in the same room and getting along.”
Email Elizabeth Larson at [email protected] . Follow her on Twitter, @ERLarson, or Lake County News, @LakeCoNews.