Author: Cornish, Rick

Finally an excuse!

Reading Mark Evans’ Message Board thread entitled “One Association would benefit all California Bluegrassers” and the responses to it took me back to another time in my life, a time when I served as lead staff to the Santa Clara County Committee on School District Organization. (Try saying that seven times in a row.) I never, ever dreamed I’d get a chance to bore all of you with stories about the county committee but, thanks to Mark, I feel perfectly entitled.

First some numbers: There are 58 counties in California and within those 58 there are roughly 1,100 unified, high school and elementary school districts. District boundaries do not cross county lines, so each of the 58 counties is comprised of a collection of a varying number of complete school districts. And under the state education code, each county has something called a County Committee on School District Organization whose responsibility it is to oversee the organization of school districts which lie within that particular county jurisdiction. (Still with me? Wake up, you could learn something here. Might not be useful information, but, hey, it’s information!)

So what’s all this got to do with Mark’s idea for a statewide bluegrass organization? Well, aside from small territory disputes and boundary changes, what county committee’s mostly do is hear from members of the citizenry who want changes in the organization of school districts in their area: they either want consolidation (many districts merging into one or a few entities) for the sake of economy of scale, greater clout in Sacramento or D.C., etc.; or they want fragmentation (smaller groupings breaking off to form new school districts) for the sake of local control, more personalized attention to students, etc. And once they hear from these groups, county committees actually have it in their power to call for elections, elections which can dramatically change a county’s educational organization.

Okay, one more set of numbers. Of the 1,100 school districts in California, 600 of them serve less than 1,000 students! Imagine, more than half the districts in California are tiny. And of those six hundred, nearly half serve LESS THAN 100 STUDENTS! Very, very tiny. My best buddy and band mate, Bill Schneiderman, is the superintendent of a school district with 32 students, and his is not the smallest district in the state. (I should mention that he works for the district one day a week—just not a lot of superintending to do for 32 boys and girls.) Oh, and on the other end of the scale, there’s Los Angeles Unified School District with a total enrollment of well over 4,000,000—their superintendent works full time.

Okay, so you’re still waiting for me to make my point. During my twenty-five years serving a half dozen or so county committees around California I heard, quite literally, hundreds of impassioned appeals made by citizens who thought there were too many school districts in their county; and for every one of those impassioned speeches, I heard an equal number arguing that districts were already too big and that the ‘people’ were gradually losing control of their neighborhood schools. Well, obviously both groups couldn’t be right, right? So studies were undertaken at the local level, at the state level, at the national level to determine optimal school district size. Blue Ribbon Committees were established to make recommendations to the state legislature about school district organization. Master Plans, (four during my twenty-five years), were created by distinguished and brilliant personages to completely reorganize school district boundaries in the state of California. Not one study ever definitively stated big or small was better. Not one set of recommendations was ever accepted by the California State Legislature and used to reconfigure school districts. And not one of the four Master Plans that were adopted by the State Board of Education during my tenure with county committees was ever implemented. Every proposal to make sweeping changes in the way school districts were organized in California was shouted down with a ferocity rarely seen in the public education arena. The board of education in Los Angeles still hires a superintendent to minister to the 4.25 million kiddies in the L.A. basin and the board of education still employs my friend Bill to make sure the 32 students in Chinese Camp Elementary School District get the best education possible.

So here’s what I learned from all of this, and I think it applies to Mark’s idea: economy of scale is great if you can achieve it without taking away local control, (or causing a PERCEPTION that local control is being diluted). Amazingly, after two and a half decades, that’s all that I walked away with. (Thankfully I was busy doing lots and lots of other things as well as CC work.) In my opinion, not one of the seven bluegrass associations which exist in California, (which, by the way, range from a couple hundred to 3,200), would feel good about merging with larger organization and suffer the inevitable loss of their current level of local control. It’s just not in the cards. As she noted in the Mark Evans thread, President Darby and I attended a day-long meeting of representatives from all the bluegrass associations in the state about two and a half years ago and here’s what became almost instantly clear: each association has its own identity, history, constituency and sense of purpose and doesn’t have so much as a whisper of desire to be subsumed into a larger association. (Quite the contrary—we’ve seen the creation of yet another bluegrass organization, the Bluegrass Music Society of Central California, since the southern California summit.) That said, ALL of the reps at the meeting felt, as Mark Evans feels, that a larger entity, one representing the entire state, could, indeed, have greater clout on the national scene and would be better able to draw big name acts from the east. One of those in attendance at that meeting (it was either Darby or me or both of us in unison) did suggest that we might want to establish a loosely constructed ‘Alliance’ of bluegrass associations to facilitate the aforementioned goals, but the idea met deafening silence. (I’ve always wondered if the idea would have taken hold if one of the smaller organizations had put it on the table.) In any event, we have worked with the other six associations since that meeting in helping back east bands build tours and, to be sure, Mark, that kind of networking can help enormously.

On a personal note, I’ve always been a never-say-die kind of guy, Mark, so when you do retire, if you decide to take this on please consider me for your bluegrass association organization committee.

Posted:  6/28/2008

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