Report advised split of Fresno Unified School District 14 years ago

The Fresno BeeDecember 31, 2011 

Reformers who want to split Fresno Unified School District might be wise to look for a box stashed at the Fresno County Office of Education.

There, they would find a 14-year-old report that says Fresno Unified should be split up.

A group called the Commission on the Future of Education in Fresno County, organized by then-county schools Superintendent Pete Mehas, paid a consultant $50,000 to produce the report.

Its conclusions: Fresno Unified's enormous size slows it down and makes it unresponsive to student needs.

The consultant's work is still at the county office to this day -- languishing, Mehas said, because special interests in the district had no interest in changing the way Fresno Unified does business.

But Mehas, whose long education track record also includes working as Clovis Unified superintendent, California State University trustee and education adviser to former Gov. George Deukmejian, said he still stands by the commission's work because there is a large body of research that says districts with fewer than 35,000 children are more effective.

"Those who benefit from the status quo will fight to defend it," he said. "The more parent groups are involved, the less influence special-interest groups have. That's why there are so many forces who are going against it."

The concept of splitting the 73,000-student Fresno district has surfaced again. A group called Reform Fresno Unified announced last month that it intends to push this year for a breakup.

Count Mehas as one who thinks the idea is worth studying.

"District boundaries should not be sacrosanct," he said. "Over the years, cities have grown up around them, freeways have been built through them -- things change."

But some things haven't changed in Fresno. The district still includes wide swaths of poverty-stricken neighborhoods at the southern end and blocks of more affluent families at the northern end. Test scores still lag behind the rest of the state.

And today, as it was in 1998, any group lobbying to break apart the district is facing long odds against success.

Latest proposal

It's only been a few weeks since Reform Fresno Unified announced a campaign to break up Fresno Unified. Group leaders propose splitting it in half -- possibly along Blackstone Avenue.

They say one of their first priorities is to hire a consultant to draw boundaries and write the state application.

"We're hoping to find someone either from within the group itself or someone local," said Javier Guzman, one of the group's members. "But it's all very expensive, so fundraisers are already in the making."

Guzman said the group wants to put the question of splitting the district on the November 2012 ballot.

Tony Pings, one of Reform Fresno Unified's founding members and president of the Fig Garden Homeowners Association, said his group is in the early stages of planning its campaign. He wouldn't discuss in detail its membership or what the group has accomplished.

Previously, three people -- local environmental activist Marcie Williams; John Trenberth, owner of Pana-Pacific, a Fresno manufacturer of high-end truck equipment; and Abdullatif Toucara, the head of the Central Valley Kwanzaa Association -- joined Pings and Guzman representing Reform Fresno Unified at a news conference announcing the push for the new district.

Pings said the group has been reaching out to community advocates and has received "a lot of feedback." But he would not elaborate.

Beginning this month, he said, the group will elect leaders and plan for signature-gathering and the state application.

"I knew it would be a difficult process -- but I'm finding that it's a little easier than I expected so far," Pings said.

Reform Fresno Unified's proposal to split the district is the second effort in the last year.

In April, Bullard Pride -- a group of Bullard High parents -- tried unsuccessfully to enlist support from Fresno High parents to form a separate district.

Chuck Manock, a Fresno attorney and one of Bullard Pride's members, said the splitting process "doesn't favor amateurs" and his group scuttled plans to split the district once members discovered the complexities involved with the state application.

"We didn't get too far into the process," he said. "It would've taken years. We all have jobs and families -- so my hat's off to Reform Fresno Unified for taking it all on."

Others not on board

Even if the split meets state guidelines, advocates would need community buy-in, a tall order unless Reform Fresno Unified can win support from current Fresno education leaders.

"District splits tend to become very political," said Larry Shirey, who oversees district reorganizations for the California Department of Education. "If there's any opposition at all it can be very difficult."

And opposition to the effort already has surfaced. Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson called the effort "unproductive" on the day the campaign was announced.

"Fresno Unified is the poorest urban district in the state," he said. "That poverty is a stiff challenge for a district of any size -- whether it's one district of 73,000 kids or two districts of 36,000 kids -- and dividing up the district is not going to change that."

The new effort also leaves some parent leaders skeptical. John Farrell, the chair of Fresno High's parent group, which calls itself the Tribal Council, said he was leery of any proposal that would pair Fresno High in a district with Bullard High.

"I have fears about a future where we will be competing for attention against the richest and most powerful people in the district," he said. "I'm smart enough to know this smacks of racism and segregation."

Clint Horwitz, a former member of the Tribal Council, said parents from the two high schools have a long history of disagreements, including how bond money should be spent and whether Wawona Middle School should have been turned into a feeder school for Bullard.

"I think being stuck in a district with those kind of overbearing folks would be a kind of hell," Horwitz said.

Teachers unions can wield powerful influence over district split campaigns, too.

In the city of Carson, for instance, a move to leave the Los Angeles Unified School District flamed out at the polls after the teachers union spent $125,000 campaigning against it.

In Fresno, Greg Gadams, head of the Fresno Teachers' Association, said his union hasn't taken a stance on the Reform Fresno Unified proposal.

Lots of steps

It can take years to split a district.

In Fresno, advocates would need to gather more than 16,000 signatures from voters within the district. They would then present the plan for the split to the Fresno County Office of Education, which would hold public hearings. If the county office approves, then the application would go to the state for approval.

There is a backlog of applications at the state level and the review can last about a year, Shirey said.

If the state approved the plan, it would go to district voters.

The process generally takes about two years, but "it can take longer if there are any political complications," Shirey said.

State law sets some tough requirements for splitting districts. The new one must mirror the old one in terms of race and income. Facilities and programs must be evenly split. The split can't create higher property values in one area or cost the state more money.

All this could make it hard to draw a line through Fresno Unified.

Take, for example, the current idea of an east-west split.

It might not create racial segregation -- Hispanics are the dominant group in all of Fresno Unified's high schools except Bullard. But there could be economic disparity. State data show 84% of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches at the four high schools east of Blackstone Avenue and 61% at the three high schools on the west side of the city.

"In a district like Fresno [Unified], drawing a boundary that does not lead to segregation would be very difficult," Shirey said.

Also, supporters must show educational programs in the new and old district will be equal.

Most efforts to split districts fail. Of the 25 proposals sent to the California Department of Education over the past 15 years, 14 were denied because of concerns about segregation or district finances, Shirey said.

Another six failed at the ballot box. Among them: Carson and the Folsom Cordova district east of Sacramento. Advocates in each instance said they wanted more local control over the sites for new schools but failed to convince voters.

Only five proposals ended in new districts -- all in rural settings, including Golden Valley Unified in Madera Ranchos.

The others: Valley Center-Pauma in northern San Diego County, Soledad in Monterey County and two that were severed from the 400-square-mile Oakdale High School District east of Modesto.

The Oakdale split that spawned Riverbank and Waterford unified school districts took 10 years and three elections to achieve -- even after endorsements by all the area's education leaders and an amicable split of the district's resources.

It's been 13 years since a split successfully passed both the state review and the test at the ballot box.

"This isn't one of those efforts that can come from the top down," Mehas said. "It really needs to be grassroots -- and come from the community."

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

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