4 Districts Warming to Unification

Times Staff Writer

The spirit of unification appeared to gain strength this week when trustees and superintendents from four beach city school districts discussed ways to merge their schools to produce one or more larger systems.

The ways were outlined by county and state experts, who met Tuesday night in Redondo Beach with officials from the South Bay Union High School District and elementary districts serving Redondo Beach, Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach.

“Unification is definitely in the wind,” said high school district Trustee Armando Acosta, “All the questions tonight were about how to do it. Nobody was interested in the negative side.”

Acosta’s district earlier this year began promoting the idea of consolidating all four districts as a way of dealing with drastic declines in public school enrollment in the three beach cities in the last 15 or 20 years. Officials there have suggested consolidating all four districts into one 12,000-student system for kindergarten-through-12th grade students.


Need for More Talks

Trustees from the elementary districts agreed that the time seems right for unification, but said much more talking and information will be needed before they agree on the form it should take.

“They gave us food for thought tonight, and I’m definitely for some kind of unification,” said Redondo Beach board President Howard Huizing. “But it’s going to take a while to sort everything out.”

His board, which was host for the joint meeting at the Redondo Beach district headquarters, has favored a unified district in that city, possibly including elementary and high school students from Hermosa Beach, rather than a consolidation of all four systems.


Individual trustees have cited community identity and a desire to preserve local control as important factors.

Kathy Campbell, president of the Manhattan Beach board, said residents of her city are concerned about those factors, too. She also said many questions remain to be answered, such as the division of property and the relative value of assets that each district would be contributing to a unified system.

Hermosa Beach, the smallest of the districts with only one school and about 700 students, had been viewed in earlier discussions as the stepchild that would have to be taken in by either of the much larger districts in Redondo Beach or Manhattan Beach. But it emerged from the meeting in a potentially strong negotiating position as a result of revenue limits.

Under the state funding formula, the tiny district receives nearly $3,200 for each full-time student, compared to limits of about $2,500 in Redondo Beach and $2,800 in Manhattan Beach. The experts pointed out that Hermosa Beach could absorb either or both of the larger districts and contribute its higher revenue limit to the new system--in return for any concessions it might want.

Tony Turcotte, who represented the state Department of Education at the meeting, reported several instances in which large school systems have eagerly sought annexation by districts with only a few students.

“Districts do covet their neighbors’ revenue limits,” he said. However, he added, the state generally imposes a 10% limit on how much more a new unified system can cost the state, compared to the funding received by the existing districts.

Pluses for Unification

Marc Forgy, who represented the county Committee on School District Organization, said major advantages of unification generally are “economy of scale"--one board, one administration, one purchasing division and so forth--and smoother “matriculation,” a student’s transition from eighth grade to the freshman level in high school.


The experts also answered a long list of questions on such issues as union and administrator contracts, personnel reassignments, responsibility for existing legal liabilities and how the “pencils and buses” are divided up if a high school district is split between two unified systems.

Turcotte said those problems are worked out by new boards during the transition period. “When people get their questions answered adequately, they relax . . . and the process goes smoothly most of the time,” he said.

Turcotte said school consolidations can begin either with a citizen petition or through action by school boards, but the ultimate decision is made by voters and requires a majority vote in all of the affected school districts. The process often takes about two years, he said, depending on when it is initiated.

He said unifications are going on all over the state, although state government stopped pushing for them in the early 1980s. “It’s up to the communities and what they want,” he said.

Concern for Children

After a lengthy discussion about the economics of unification, Hermosa Beach Trustee Joe Mark wondered: “What’s best for the kids?” in terms of the quality of education.

The experts ran out of answers at that point, noting that different studies have produced different conclusions. South Bay High School District Trustee William Beverly suggested that a subcommittee be formed to check out the post-unification track records in other areas of the state.