Too little, too late for proposed Camarillo school district

Grand Jury report bolsters case for failed ballot measure

By David Michael Courtland 05/28/2009

Supporters of a failed effort to form a unified Camarillo school district say a new Grand Jury report offers little hope for achieving their goal, even though it confirms one of their arguments for the move.

Concluding that about $128 million of administrative costs could be saved by consolidating the county’s 20 districts into six, the report recommends making a new school district out of Pleasant Valley, Somis and Mesa Union schools.

That’s similar to the proposed district to be formed out of Pleasant Valley, Somis and Camarillo schools that supporters of Measure U campaigned for last year. The change would have meant splitting schools off from the Oxnard Union High School District.

The initiative drew overwhelming support from Camarillo voters in the Nov. 6 election but heavy opposition from Oxnard voters. The measure narrowly lost by 1,926 votes, carrying only 49 percent of total votes cast.

“It’s just nice to see findings validated,” said Sandra Berg of Camarillo, a Measure U supporter. “It shows that our community believes in this.”

Elected school officials have 60 days to give the Ventura County Office of Education their response to the report. Appointed officials, such as school district superintendents, have 90 days.

But school officials say the Grand Jury doesn’t have any authority to enforce its recommendations, and they doubt consolidation would actually save money. They also raise questions about who would make changes in curriculum.

Oxnard high school board member Socorro Lopez-Hanson says consolidation is worth looking into but that she would want to hear comments from parents, teachers and the business community before supporting it.

“I think the theory sounds good,” said Lopez-Hanson, “but when it comes to implementing these changes, I’d be concerned about the lack of community input and what impact it would have on educational programs.”

Oxnard elementary school board trustee Denis O’Leary, who was a vocal opponent of Measure U, is harsher in his criticism of the report.

O’Leary says the change would disenfranchise many in the community by making it harder for them to be represented on school boards.

“They’re going to empower wealthier communities, you’re going to have school board trustees elected from the places where they can afford to run,” said O’Leary, adding, “Trustees receive a stipend of a few hundred a month; we don’t do it for the money.”

O’Leary is also skeptical about whether consolidation would save money. He thinks that although it would eliminate a number of top-level administrators, the next level below them would probably expand to pick up the slack.

“It won’t save spending; it might even create more spending,” said O’Leary, who compared added administration of several large districts to Los Angeles Unified School District, where “you have bureaucrats overseeing bureaucrats, oversight of oversight.”

But Berg does not agree that consolidation would lead to bloated administration, and says the idea deserves further study.

“You just have to study the facts; anytime you reduce overhead you reduce spending,” said Berg. “The constant comparison to LAUSD is ridiculous; we’ll never have a school district that big.”

Debra Creadick, who was on the Measure U campaign’s steering committee, agreed the idea should be looked into further, but for a different reason.

“I’m not sure I would agree the main reason would be administrative,” said Creadick. “I think that’s a byproduct and it’s laudable. There’s far more benefits than that.”

Creadick says consolidation would allow curriculum to be more consistent from elementary to middle and high school, making it easier for students to maintain the high test scores schools depend on for funding, and reducing the dropout rate.

“That’s why we tried so hard to unify; it’s very clear that Oxnard Union High School Disrict has needs that aren’t being met,” said Creadick, who noted that OUHSD’s dropout rate went up again in the past year. “That’s not a statistic that you want to be going on the rise.”

But both Berg and Creadick agree that the report’s recommendations aren’t likely to be pursued because administrators would have to give up jobs; and board members, elected positions.

“It certainly deserves further study, but it’s going to take leadership from the community level,” said Berg. “School board members, teachers, administrators and unions will oppose it.”

Creadick said that even with community support, the process of realigning and consolidating districts might ultimately be too cumbersome. Each community would have to lobby for new school districts with petitions and ballot measures.

“It isn’t possible to just consolidate them, unless there’s a change at the state level that makes reorganizing school districts much easier,” Creadick said. “Each school district would have to go through the same process that Camarillo did the last 15 years.”   

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