Group will push for splitting Fresno Unified in two

The Fresno BeeDecember 12, 2011 

The Fresno Unified School District is simply too big and too unresponsive to be effective, according to the leaders of a signature-gathering campaign launched Monday.

Members of Reform Fresno Unified said the 73,000-student district should be split in half -- possibly along Blackstone Avenue -- in order to stem the tide of dropouts and truancy within the district.

"The smaller school districts around us are doing so much better -- with the same student base," Marcie Williams, the group's spokeswoman, said at a news conference. "Fresno Unified is failing."

Fresno Unified's enrollment is the fourth-largest in the state behind the Los Angeles, San Diego and Long Beach unified school districts.

The concept of splitting the district has been pitched before -- and has wide support in some areas of the city and even from the president of the district's board of trustees -- but it is a difficult process.

If the group is successful, it will be the first time in state history that a large district has been split, according to Larry Powell, the county superintendent of schools.

First, the group will need to gather about 16,000 signatures from the 159,679 voters within the district to start the application process. Then, the Fresno County Office of Education would decide whether the proposed split meets a strict series of state laws. Those laws require the ethnic and socio-economic demographics to be equal within the two districts, and for facilities and programs to be split evenly. The split also can't result in a rise in property values in one area over another or cost the state more money for either staff, classrooms or facilities.

Powell said any split must take into account districtwide vocational programs at Duncan Polytechnical High School, and schools that offer accelerated classes, such as Manchester GATE and Edison Computech.

"It's a daunting task," Powell said. "It's very complicated."

The proposal also would need the approval of the state Board of Education. Reform Fresno Unified has just a handful of members so far. Five supporters -- Williams, special-education advocate Tony Pings, Chicano Youth Center Director Javier Guzman, business owner John Trenberth and Abullatif Toucara, the head of the Central Valley Kwanzaa Association -- attended Monday's media event.

The group said it plans to meet with various community organizations in the coming weeks.

"We're at the beginning of the process," Pings said. "We're planning to reach out to large segments of the community who don't feel like they're being heard and give them a voice."

One of the organizations already on board, the Chicano Youth Center, also is spearheading an effort to look into the district's dropout problem. Guzman, the center's director, said the district's administration is too "inept and ineffective" to keep struggling students in school.

"For six years, we've waited for the administration to change the situation, and it's getting worse," he said.

Fresno Unified officials released a statement saying the campaign is "not in the best interest of our students both educationally and fiscally."

"Our efforts should be focused on how we can partner together to boost achievement of all students," Superintendent Michael Hanson said in the statement. "We work with many community organizations to lift the students in Fresno Unified and that's where our focus must remain."

The group isn't the first to pitch the idea of splitting the district. Last spring, members of Bullard Pride, a group of parents from Bullard High School, unsuccessfully tried to gain support of Fresno High parents for severing ties with Fresno Unified and forming a Van Ness Unified School District.

The northwest Fresno area's representative on the board of trustees, Michelle Asadoorian, also has publicly advocated breaking up the district.

Asadoorian said Monday that while she has been in contact with Reform Fresno Unified, and supports them in concept, she's not a member.

"On a surface level, I want to be supportive," she said. "Smaller districts in other urban areas are faring better than we are."

While the Fresno County Office of Education can't take a side on the proposal, Powell said he welcomed the conversation: "It would be good to come together and talk about how we can go about improving education."

The reporter can be reached at vgibbons@fresnobee.com or (559)441-6378.

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