In the rugged Santa Cruz Mountains, far from the reach of city boundaries, schools define and shape community identity.
So Andrea and Andras Szabo thought the children on their one-lane, dead-end street just south of the summit all should be able to attend the same elementary and middle schools instead of being divided among two or three districts.
The couple petitioned to transfer their and 16 other properties from the far-flung Lakeside School district to the neighboring Loma Prieta School District.
Now, after a three-year journey through local school committees and the state Board of Education, in May residents will be able to vote on the proposal. But the Szabos are resigned to losing because the Santa Clara County Board of Education this month determined that all 1,200 or so voters in the Lakeside School District may cast a ballot. And because Lakeside officials oppose the territory transfer as costing it precious dollars, the Szabos believe they're outnumbered.
The dispute that has heated up the bucolic mountain community illustrates the difficulty in redrawing outdated boundary lines, even with arguments about educational or community benefits. Lakeside's 141 students come from an area straddling the mountain summit, west of Highway 17. Two-thirds of the district lies in Santa Cruz County.
"It's very simple, really. We are closer to the Loma Prieta District," Andrea Szabo said. "If something happens, all the kids from the road are in one school district."
Lakeside contends that the May vote will affect only four students -- the Szabos' two children, whom they home-school because they didn't want them to be caught in the dispute, and two others who wish to remain in the district. The Szabos say beyond their own family, the change would make life easier for future children on their street.
But Lakeside leaders insist the Szabos could simply have requested an interdistrict transfer for their children. Instead, the proposal to secede "affects the children of the voters in the whole district," Lakeside Superintendent Elizabeth Bozzo said, pointing out that the property taxes lost if the 17 parcels leave Lakeside will cost the district 3 percent of its budget, or about one-half a teacher's salary. "It's really about the voters' right to vote."
Lines dating back a century and a half put two-thirds of properties on Marty Road and its offshoot, Jensen Springs Road, in the Loma Prieta District, the rest in Lakeside. The Szabos argue that Loma Prieta School is closer -- 4 miles versus about 8 miles -- than Lakeside. Lakeside offers no morning bus service, and the afternoon bus deposits students two hours after school ends. And Lakeside does not offer middle school; instead, students choose between Loma Prieta's C.T. English or Rolling Hills Middle School in Los Gatos.
Unlike in other territory transfers, the issue isn't school quality or test scores. Students in both districts score well into the 900s on the state's Academic Performance Index.
Outside observers may wonder why not just merge the districts -- at least Lakeside and Loma Prieta, if not also Los Gatos and Saratoga elementary districts. All four feed into the Los Gatos-Saratoga High School District, which some say should be unified into one entity with its feeder districts. Four years ago, an initiative to transfer about 300 parcels from Lakeside to Loma Prieta fizzled.
Marrying school districts with distinct cultures, priorities and finances is a tricky thing, even with willing partners. The last large merger in the county occurred when the Mountain View and Whisman districts joined in 2001 after years of talks.
Lakeside has met with other school district officials to discuss cooperation and sharing services to save costs. But the short answer is, "There's no guarantee they'd keep the school open," Bozzo said.
And that is a top priority for its community, even if it costs extra to run an elementary school with fewer than 100 students.
"It's very expensive to run a school with a class size of 12 or 14," said Ralph Becker-Szendy, who helped lead a successful campaign for a $311 parcel tax two years ago.
Every merger scenario faces financial or political roadblocks, Becker-Szendy said. "There's no good solution."
So without a big-picture resolution, Lakeside voters will vote on a tiny-picture scenario on May 7. While they are happy to have a say, the Szabos don't welcome outside opinion. "It's very disappointing," Andrea Szabo said. "We don't feel like the system worked for us."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.