Fresno Unified school trustees on Wednesday gave a blistering review of a plan pitched several months ago to split the school district in two, calling the proposal incomplete and without proof that two smaller districts would improve achievement.
The talks centered around a plan submitted by Reform Fresno Unified, which is aiming to spark a public conversation about a split and eventually get a measure on the ballot. The group has said breaking the district in two could help solve entrenched problems like high dropout rates and help shrink the achievement gap.
The district’s attorney Chris Skinnell made a brief presentation to the school board, but noted Reform Fresno Unified’s proposal had several holes and didn’t merit a complete analysis. He said the report failed to address how a split would affect costs tied to school facilities and upkeep. It also had basic data errors, he said.
Several trustees knocked the plan, arguing there’s no evidence showing two smaller districts, which would each have more than 30,000 students, would operate any better than the existing district.
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Trustee Janet Ryan called the proposal “just a distraction” and said the district, which she compared to a giant ship, is making great strides in academic achievement and otherwise.
“As we’re fixing the ship, getting it off the rocks and in the right direction, we had folks on the outside taking pot shots at us, some with cannons,” she said. “All through it we’ve done a good job, we’ve moved this district, kids are doing better.”
Students are also concerned.
At the meeting, Edison High senior Rafael Flores, 17, told the board that students worry the proposal could put certain programs at risk, like the Center for Advanced Research and Technology, or CART. The school is run as a partnership between Fresno and Clovis unifieds.
Reform Fresno Unified members have said enrollment at magnet and other specialty programs wouldn’t be affected by the plan.
Fresno architect Tony Pings, secretary for the Reform Fresno Unified, was given three minutes to answer the board’s concerns. He told the board the proposal is just the first “stepping stone” in a long process he thinks deserves discussion.
Formal blueprints have been drawn and a demographer produced a $100,000 report in the fall proposing a split into two new and distinct regions — one including schools in the Bullard, Edison, Roosevelt and Fresno High neighborhoods, the other encompassing schools within the McLane, Hoover and Sunnyside High areas.
Under the plan, nearly identical percentages of minority ethnic groups and students in poverty would attend each district. Overall, about 53% of the district’s current students would attend the western schools; 47% would attend those in the east.
Breaking apart a district the size of Fresno Unified would be groundbreaking in California. But the task promises to be difficult and would likely take years to complete.
Proponents must first gather and validate signatures from 10% of the voting public, about 16,437 names. Once signatures are verified, a reorganization plan is submitted to the Fresno County Office of Education.
From there, the county would submit a recommendation to the Department of Education. If the State Board of Education decides the plan has merit, it goes back to the county to analyze how a split would affect the environment. That analysis then heads up to the state board again for a final decision. If the verdict is in the reformers’ favor, then the question would go to voters.