Friday, January 20, 2012

Forum in Santa Clara County explores issue of school district consolidation

By Carol Rosen, Correspondent

An exploration of the pros and cons of consolidating some of the county's 31 school districts was the topic of a forum hosted this week by Silicon Valley Education Foundation. School district consolidation was a recommendation that came out of a 2009-10 Santa Clara County Grand Jury report.

The report recommended combining four high school districts with their feeder elementary and middle schools, decreasing administrative positions and adding efficiencies, thus saving money.

Examples include putting Cambrian, Union, Campbell, Moreland and Luther Burbank into a unified district with Campbell Union High School District; taking the Cupertino Union and Sunnyvale districts into the Fremont Union High School District. It also suggested consolidating Los Gatos Union, Saratoga Union, Loma Prieta Joint Union and Lakeside school districts with Los Gatos-Saratoga Joint Union High School District.
Emmett Carson, CEO of Silicon Valley Community Foundation, was adamant in his keynote address that something has to be done to improve the quality of education in Santa Clara County. Carson said one in six high school students in the county dropped out during 2009-10.

Calling the county's public education "a failed system," he noted large subgroups in which students didn't meet the state's A-G requirements to be eligible for consideration at California state universities.

That's the problem with our current educational system, Joseph DiSalvo said after the forum. Di Salvo, Santa Clara County Board of Education president, said, "We've been talking about the achievement gap for the past 30 years and unless we do something about it, we'll still be talking about it 30 years from now."

Di Salvo, an outspoken supporter of district consolidation, added, "Silicon Valley has 10,000 good-paying job openings for people with technical skills in engineering and math. If our public schools don't create students with the talent necessary to get into and graduate from college, we will continue to see 8.6 percent unemployment, and businesses may move on to other areas where the population has the technical skills to meet their needs," he said.

Carson told the audience that scenario already has happened. "Companies are coming from around the world to learn how Silicon Valley companies are successful. I haven't heard of schools coming here to find out how well our schools function."

One business entity came here thinking about moving to the area, he said, but when iofficials saw the school scores, they backed off.

He said after the forum that it might not be necessary to consolidate, but argued that it is necessary to create an accountability of student outcomes. "There's too many pointing fingers leaving no one accountable," he said, noting that the county's 169 school board members are the decision makers, instead of administrators who are closer to day-to-day realities.

Carson said he would like to see more innovation, instead of a system that makes innovation difficult. "There's something wrong with a system that doesn't reflect our innovation," he said referring to the Silicon Valley's technological edge.

While some of the six panel members agreed, others were confident that communities and parents are behind their local elementary districts and are satisfied with their students' outcomes.

Parent surveys seem to conclude that students are doing well, and API scores at Union's schools are improving, said Jackie Horejs, superintendent of the Union School District.

She cited Lietz Elementary, which reduced its achievement gap to 19 percent in 2011, plummeting from 48 percent a year earlier, including 63 percent of Latino students scoring proficient or above in third grade reading.

There also are concerns about California's grim financial picture. "What will happen to state funding if districts merge?" asked Josephine Lucey, Cupertino Union school board member and a member of the county's Committee on School District Organization. "What happens to parcel taxes and bonds that haven't yet been issued?"

Charter schools likely will affect public schools in a positive way, added Charles Weis, superintendent of the county's office of education. "More charters are going after different areas, and it's changing the way public education does its business. School districts could become a thing of the past," he said.

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