Contra Costa Supervisor Mary Piepho is urging local educators to explore the idea of combining five small school districts in far East County to form a single, unified agency as a way to save money.

Piepho, of Discovery Bay, will hold a private meeting Tuesday with superintendents and school board members to kick around the idea of merging the K-8 Brentwood, Byron, Oakley and Knightsen school districts with Liberty Union High School District.

"It's strictly a conversation, (but) it would promote efficiencies," Piepho said.

She already has met with county Superintendent of Schools Joseph Ovick and a representative for state Superintendent Tom Torlakson as well as Brentwood Union Superintendent Merrill Grant and Jerry Glenn, superintendent of the high school district.

As a county government official, Piepho has no authority over school districts. She said she's facilitating the talks because she doesn't have a vested interest in their outcome and therefore can remain more neutral.

She said she's been contemplating the notion for a long time but raised the question now because of the financial struggles that schools are facing these days coupled with the public's demand that government spend tax dollars wisely.

The way Piepho sees it, five school districts mean five sets of administrators and support employees as well as duplication of cafeteria services and other offerings.

Several local superintendents say they don't have strong opinions on the issue at this point.


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But Vickey Rinehart, Knightsen School District's former superintendent, and Rick Rogers, top administrator of Oakley Union Elementary, both dislike the idea.

Rinehart proposed a merger with the Brentwood and Byron school districts a couple of years ago when she feared her district would go bankrupt, resulting in the closure of Knightsen Elementary School.

Since then, however, the district's finances have stabilized, and Rinehart says the argument that a consolidation would save money overall is a common misconception. Knightsen is a one-campus district after closing Old River Elementary last year to save money.

"The public seems to think that education is top-heavy in administration," she said.

In fact, a superintendent couldn't possibly run a unified district alone; he or she would need assistant superintendents to share the tremendous workload, said Rinehart, noting that she routinely worked 12-hour days.

"You still need the same amount of people. When you get done, you're still spending the same amount of money," she said.

But sometimes a merger does result in savings -- it just depends on the circumstances, said Ron Bennett, president and chief executive officer of School Services of California Inc., a consulting firm that helps districts decide whether consolidation makes financial sense.

Because elementary school districts receive less money per student than high school districts, combining them could produce more revenue, he said.

Further, smaller districts typically spend a larger percentage of their budget on administration than bigger ones, Bennett said.

On the other hand, merging a cluster of small districts into one that encompasses a large area could backfire if residents of those communities feel disenfranchised, Bennett said.

Residents want to have a say in the education their children are getting, Rinehart added.

Although Glenn said he's on the fence at this point, he thinks the idea of consolidating districts to avoid the expense incurred by each offering the same service might have merit.

For example, it might prove more cost-effective to combine maintenance and purchasing departments, he said.

Both he and Grant also believes a unified district would establish greater homogeneity in the curriculum. By ensuring that students at every K-8 school in the area studied the same concepts at every grade level, they would all be equally prepared upon entering high school, he said.

On the other hand, Glenn noted that schools in the Acalanes Union High School District -- which, like Liberty Union, has separate K-8 districts feeding into it -- get good test results.

Those leery about a merger say that with a K-12 configuration, there's the risk that elementary and middle school students would get short shrift because administrators would be largely focused on the high school grades.

Not only do teenagers cause more disruptions that divert attention from academics, but with graduation just a few years away, the stakes for this age group are higher, Rogers said.

Educators are trying to ensure that students pass the high school exit exam and take the courses they need to get into college or land a job, with the result that there's less time and money spent on the K-8 curriculum, he said.

Bennett disagrees, however.

"If it were true that the elementary students got less attention, then nobody would ever unify," he said, noting that most districts in California are unified in keeping with the state Department and Board of Education's goal.

Rogers and Glenn pointed out that the larger a school district becomes, the less effective it can be.

Communication between the superintendent's office and those on the front lines suffers, Glenn said.

Because the superintendent of a large district is that much busier, it's harder to return calls or meet with parents, so the agency is less responsive to the public, Rogers added.

Whether the talks continue will depend on how receptive stakeholders are to exploring the idea further, Piepho said.

Contact Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141.