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By Henry A. Barrios/ The Californian
By Jose Gaspar
One year after schools in Wasco tried to create a new school district by unifying its elementary and high school districts into one, the same effort is brewing in Shafter. But the current process under way there has already dissolved into split camps with accusations of secret meetings by certain parties pushing their own agenda.
First, some background.
"The Richland School District, an elementary school district, desires to reorganize itself into a new unified school district, absorbing Shafter High School as part of the newly unified district," states a recently released feasibility study on the issue.
According to Richland Superintendent Ken Bergevin, the study was completed in collaboration with the Kern High School District, School Services of California, a private consultant company and the Fresno law firm of Lozano Smith.
The feasibility study examined the nine criteria set forth by the state Education Code and Government Code and concluded unification in Shafter met all legal norms. The nine benchmarks are adequate number of pupils; community identity; equitable division of property/facilities; discrimination/segregation; no substantial increase in state costs; sound educational program; no increase in state housing costs; increased property values; and effect on fiscal status and management.
So why does Richland wish to "absorb" Shafter High, which is part of the Kern High School District? And what would the consequences be for students, teachers, staff and the community as a whole?
So many different answers -- and non-answers -- depending on whom you ask.
One person who is convinced that a single K-12 unified school district is good for Shafter is Eli Espericueta, who has two children who will eventually be attending Shafter High.
"Everything just seems to make so much sense," said Espericueta, part of a group called Citizens for United Shafter Schools. He describes the group as a loose-knit coalition of citizens who think unification is a good idea and want to make it happen.
Espericueta said the group is not part of the Richland School District and has no elected officers, no elected anything. Espericueta points out that Shafter is its own community with unique needs that can be better met if Shafter High School were part of a single unified school district rather than under the control of KHSD.
"We're very much different than schools in Bakersfield," he said. None of the current KHSD board members lives in Shafter. The group contends the community would be better-served by electing its own representatives.
But teachers in both Richland and at Shafter High have a different view. For starters, there's the prickly issue of salaries and benefits. If unification were to happen, teachers and classified staff would have to negotiate a new salary schedule with the new unified school district. And while the feasibility study contends that establishing a new salary schedule is "achievable," teachers note there are no guarantees.
"I know my staff is very concerned at my site about salaries, benefits, their future and tenure," said Natalie Feinberg, an English teacher at Shafter High.
Another concern is that teachers' options for advancement would be limited under unification. The chances of moving up into administrative posts within KHSD would be diminished. Others challenge the study's data on future funding, which says the new district would receive significant annual funding increases from the state under the new Local Control Funding Formula.
"I think the study is too optimistic in terms of the funding source," said Shafter High teacher Pablo Reyes.
He adds there is no way to tell which way the state's economy will go, which will affect local funding.
In a recent straw poll at Shafter High, 33 teachers voted against unification, five in favor and nine were undecided. Among classified staff, 31 voted no, four yes and one was undecided. And the majority of teachers in the Richland School District voted March 9 to also oppose unification, though no exact numbers were given.
As I mentioned, the community is already split on the issue. Some view Citizens for United Shafter Schools as too closely allied with Richland Superintendent Bergevin, who has one year left on his contract. Spanish-speaking parents complain of not being kept informed by the superintendent's office about the unification process. That's a key issue in this city, where a large percentage of parents are not fluent in English. Parent Dolores Chavez notes the 38-page feasibility study has not been translated so parents can understand what it says.
And there is confusion over the role of Citizens for United Shafter Schools. The group has held some informational community meetings on the unification issue and at least one on the feasibility study. But those meetings were not sanctioned by the Richland school board, prompting board President Tony Aguirre to write the following statement on the district website: "These meetings are not sponsored or authorized by the Richland board. The Richland board has not taken up the matter of the feasibility study and does not endorse or authorize the use of the feasibility study until such time as it has been reviewed and approved by the RSD board."
The school board will hold a special meeting 6 p.m. Tuesday at Golden Oak School, where it will discuss the study and take comments from the public.
There's still a ways to go to determine if unification will really happen in Shafter. If the Richland school board approves the idea, the KHSD board must also do so. And so far, KHSD is staying out of this.
Then the Kern County Superintendent of Schools gets involved. If all entities give their approval, then the plan goes before voters in the Richland School District and KHSD for approval.
At this point, it's anybody's guess if it will ultimately make it to the ballot box.
Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a reporter for KBAK/KBFX Eyewitness News. Email him at elcompa29@ gmail.com. His work appears here every third Monday; the views expressed are his own.