News
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Congratulations to the Better Together group for taking on the subject of too many school districts head on (“Group eyes southern Marin school district consolidation,” July 3). This won’t be an easy discussion, but it is one that Marin needs to give serious considerations.

Parcel taxes are not the way to go when you have 10 districts looking for money from those in their small community and one high school that needs money from all of them. If all the high school district feeder schools were combined, the tax, as well as the cost, would be more evenly spread out to benefit all the students in the entire district.

Marin has become such a selfish group of “me first” people. Our nation is not going to recover unless we include everyone in our prosperity. To be educated voters, all children need a supportive school environment with a good civics and history background, not just the financially fortunate few.

 

If you want a more balanced group of citizens, then we better educate all our students.

— Gladys C. Gilliland, San Rafael

July 11, 2021
Editorial: School Merger Group Deserves to Be Heard
Marin Independent Journal
By Marin IJ Editorial Board

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Just because we’ve been doing things the same way for years doesn’t always mean it is the best way to get the job done. That’s the premise of a group of Marin citizens, calling themselves Better Together, who have come together to take a hard look at the 10 elementary school districts that feed into the Tamalpais Union High School District. They want to look into the costs and benefits of both the current composition and those that could be realized through consolidation. Maybe Marin’s collection of smaller districts is outdated. Maybe the costs outweigh its benefits when it comes to delivering the best possible educational opportunities to local youth. Maybe Marin residents don’t want to give up the hyper-local control that the current educational bureaucracy represents.

 

It’s not going to be a simple task, but a number of local leaders say they are up for the work.

Topping the tasks is looking at the local control that educators have long said is essential in the winning of local school tax measures and the stream of local donations to those classrooms. That support, they say, is critical to smaller schools and top-quality school districts that they say draw home-buyers and renters to their communities. But this independent group, whose members include former Corte Madera Mayor Sloan Bailey and former Larkspur-Corte Madera School District and Tam district trustee Sheri Mowbray, say that it’s about time the current way of doing things is fairly evaluated and weighed against possible alternatives.

What’s best for the nearly 15,000 youngsters enrolled in those “feeder” elementary schools and the Tam district’s high schools?

What’s the future, as many of those school districts are facing the costly challenges of declining enrollment? Do we really need so many highly paid and benefited superintendents? If consolidation is the answer, how do the districts balance out the wide variables of their payrolls, staffing, local parcel and bond taxes and short- and long-term pension benefits? Some of Marin’s local school taxes are among the highest in the state. Are there really differences in local educational philosophies and goals that cannot be bridged by a single, less-costly administrative umbrella?Mowbray framed the dilemma well. She’s served in the trenches of the local public schools bureaucracy. “There is incredible duplication,” she said, noting that each district has its own budget, has its own school board, has to update its own state-required accountability plan, adopt its own curricula and has to hire and retain its own administration. Amid that duplication, however, there are differences — in pay scales, classroom programs, long- and short-term capital demands and local taxes. The county Office of Education, in recent years, has worked to make some inroads in consolidating administrative services. That progress — and savings — is important, but limited.

 

Better Together’s members are starting out at the base of a tall mountain of fact finding and confronting political and emotional issues. They are well-equipped for the climb toward answers. They may find that a unified district, consolidating 11 separate districts, most with their own costly administrations, into a single elementary and high school district could provide greater educational opportunities for local students. Even Better Together’s work is just a start. There are bureaucratic and political hurdles, such as getting approval from a countywide committee that governs proposed changes in local school districts, such as consolidation or boundary changes and complying with state law.

 

Key to their success will be building local public support. Keeping its work and progress open and public could be vital to that success. Better Together is starting out on a long road. But the focus and commitment to do what’s best for the education of local youth. They may be thinking outside of the Marin box, but it is an analysis that is overdue and one that may find a better way of running local public schools.

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A new Marin citizens group is taking on the task of potentially dislodging the weighty, entrenched — and some say redundant — public school system in the county. The group, called Better Together for Public Education, is focusing on the 10 K-8 districts in southern and West Marin that feed into the Tamalpais Union High School District. “As of July 1, we will have 17 school districts to serve 33,000 students — which seems excessive to anyone looking at that,” said group leader Sheri Mowbray, a former Larkspur-Corte Madera School District trustee. In addition to Mowbray, members include nine other current and former school board and city council officials and a school administrator. “The focus is to provide the best academic education for our children,” said committee member Sloan Bailey, a former Corte Madera town councilman. “The larger concept is to try to save money and avoid unnecessary administration and bureaucracy.” Bailey said the group is not fixated on a specific outcome. He and other members just have a desire to explore possibilities and gather data.

 

At least two Marin County Civil Grand Jury reports in 2012 and 2004 have recommended the issue be addressed — but after decades, it’s still just a talking point, Bailey said.“The worst enemy of this topic is inertia,” he said. The 10 so-called “feeder” K-8 districts in southern Marin that channel elementary and middle school students into the Tamalpais Union High School District’s five high schools include: Larkspur-Corte Madera, Kentfield, Mill Valley, Reed Union, Sausalito Marin City, Lagunitas, Ross, Nicasio, Bolinas-Stinson and Ross Valley. “Those 10 districts include 15,000 of Marin’s 33,000 public education students,” Mowbray said. “It’s almost half of Marin’s public education system.”She said she has been thinking about this issue for at least 15 years. Cutting costs is one of several obvious benefits, she said. “There is incredible duplication,” Mowbray said. “In this Tam District feeder group, there are 10 budgets, 10 LCAPs (academic allocation plans), 10 school boards, 10 curricula that need to get done. The same thing is being done over and over by people serving the same needs.”

 

In addition to streamlining finances and procedures, Mowbray said she thinks joining districts together could provide opportunities for specialized academic programs that might be too expensive for smaller districts. Those could include, for example, a Spanish-English dual immersion elementary school or a technology speciality program. “Perhaps students are missing out because the districts are so small,” she said. “I wonder about that.”

 

Mowbray, who also served on the Tamalpais Union High School District board of trustees, said the move could also provide a smoother transition for area middle schoolers into high school. “Because we have 10 K-8 districts feeding into the one Tam high school district, it creates a lot of disconnect for students who were coming in from 10 different curricular programs,” she said.

 

Despite their energy and good intentions, the Better Together group, which Mowbray said has been meeting weekly since March, hit a bureaucratic wall on its first inquiry last month when it approached the Marin County Committee on School District Organization. Their request for committee support was a non-starter because any such proposals need to go through a public vetting process first before they reach the county, said Terena Mares, the Marin’s deputy superintendent of schools and staff assistant to the county committee. “We don’t have an opinion on this,” Mares said. “These are locally driven decisions.” According to state law, the “path to reorganization of school district boundaries has to be done by petition,” Mares said. “And the code is very prescriptive as to what that looks like.” Once the prescribed number of voter signatures is gathered, the issue is presented to the Marin County superintendent of schools. The county superintendent then verifies through the county registrar of voters whether the signatures are valid, Mares said. Once verified, the petition then could go to the Marin County Committee on School District Organization, which would schedule public hearings on the issue. “They have to follow the nine conditions laid out by the state as to what qualifies as an approvable district organization,” Mares said. “Even if all nine conditions are met, the county committee can say yes, but they can also say no.” For the nine conditions to be met, the Southern Marin group would first need to do a series of studies. Those include a California Environmental Quality Act report, a study on student transportation, staff salary schedules, facilities bonds and parcel taxes. “It is oftentimes a very expensive venture to perform all those reports and analyses,” Mares said. After the public hearings, the matter would go to a state board and then to voters on a ballot measure. “It’s a two- to three-year process, at minimum,” Mares said. “I’ve seen school districts take 10 years to get this done.”

 

Mowbray said the committee members realize “this is a very steep hill,” and that there are fierce loyalties and strongly held interests in local control among the various Marin school communities.“This is a political hot potato and very controversial — and we understand that,” she said. However, the group is undeterred. Now, given their marching orders from the county, Better Together will be strategizing over the summer and then launching outreach with the local school boards in the fall, she said.

The group may also form a 501(c)(3) nonprofit to raise money for the studies that will be needed. “The way it’s structured, it may take many years — but if you don’t start now, when are you going to start?” Mowbray said.  “My answer to ‘why now?’ is ‘why not now’?”