Taxpayers who would like to see government operating more efficiently frequently ask why school districts don't consolidate as a way to save money on administrators and overhead. Seldom does the question go any further than that, however, largely because people are possessive of their local schools and because district leaders are reluctant to give up control.
This fierce independence is why there have been relatively few consolidations, even during the recent years of school budget cuts.
So it's a pleasant surprise to see the two high school districts in Tuolumne County begin to discuss whether there could be financial benefits from a merger.
It is likely to take at least a year and a half of studies and discussions before the Sonora and Summerville districts could reach the point of a consolidation, but we applaud their respective leaders for giving it serious consideration.
The tiny La Grange district, which dwindled to fewer than half a dozen students, folded into the adjoining Roberts Ferry elementary district at the end of the last school year, but there really wasn't any choice for La Grange, which ran out of money as well as students.
Larry Shirey, a field representative on school district reorganization with the California Department of Education, said that most of the movement in recent years has been similar to what occurred in eastern Stanislaus County -- very small districts annexing to other districts. Money is often the impetus, although the smallest districts also find it difficult to offer the range of academics and extras that larger schools do -- and that parents want.
Consolidation needs to be a bottom-up approach -- legally and strategically. Shirey said that the state education department isn't going try to impose mergers on any districts, but rather is willing to work with those that want to talk about it.
The Sonora and Summerville districts both have experienced shrinking enrollment, plus the Summerville superintendent is retiring this year, which is helping to prompt the discussion. The school boards of both districts have authorized the consolidation study.
The Sonora Union Democrat reports that there also is a group in Tuolumne County that is promoting the full consolidation of all the elementary school districts in the county. If that idea came to fruition, Tuolumne would resemble neighboring Mariposa County, where there is one consolidated district for the whole county.
It's far too soon to know whether consolidation makes sense for Summerville and Sonora. And there are considerations beyond finances. But we applaud educational leaders there for being willing to look at a possibility that many of their counterparts won't even go near.