Still Too Many School Districts in Santa Clara County

An acquaintance of mine, who emigrated from Switzerland several years ago, recently read about the appointment of Rosemary Kamei to theSanta Clara County Office of Education's Board of Trustees. He asked me to help him understand the American system of education and schools, noting that he couldn’t make sense out of our system.

He asked me to explain in a few minutes the structure of school districts, their governance, and the charter/traditional public school competition. I gave it my best shot.

The overly complicated structure of our public education system has been made infinitely more difficult to understand by the burgeoning world of charter schools, which are also publicly funded. I remember a conversation I had a few years ago with Dr. Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. When he arrived from Minneapolis to Silicon Valley in 2006, he had a difficult time figuring out the structure of our public school system for his own children when purchasing a home.

He found it difficult to understand why there were 31 school districts in Santa Clara County, each with their own superintendent, and a total of 169 elected trustees. Dr. Carson convened a community conversation about the issue only to be rebuffed by those current superintendents, trustees and parent stakeholders, who believed the status quo was just fine. The SVCF underwrote a white paper on the subject titled, "How Did We End Up With 54 School Districts in San Mateo and Santa Clara Counties?" It is an outstanding treatise on the subject and its local history.

Former SCCOE Trustee Leon Beauchman—Kamei’s predecessor—and I attempted to proactively discuss Civil Grand Jury reports from 2010 and 2011, which recommended a model for school district consolidation. I placed the item on a Board agenda for discussion and action in 2012. At that time, the Board voted unanimously to set aside $30,000 to have School Services of California study the issue. This revenue impact analysis model would allow any district or community group to study the issue further.

However, three years later we have not been able to coordinate the study due to the controversial nature of the topic. The public appears to be satisfied with the current structure. It seems school district consolidation/unification is dead with no revival in sight. But for anyone interested in the subject, the Committee on School District Organization meets regularly at the SCCOE offices. There are a series of laws that regulate the process going forward.

When I served as Board president, then-SCCOE Superintendent Chuck Weis told me that he believed charter schools would be the catalyst for change. Weis said in an interview with a local paper: "Within my lifetime, school districts will be a thing of the past. Parents will decide where to send their kids, rather than school attendance being dictated by families' addresses. Were going to be a consumer driven model."

I’m not sure if we are moving in the direction Dr. Weis suggested.

Silicon Valley prides itself on innovation, but our fragmented system is more akin to a sundial than an Apple Watch. Local leaders should look at the Denver Public Schools’ School Choice System for a path forward.

For the last three years, School Choice has streamlined the application process to traditional district, charter and magnet schools. As a universal enrollment system, School Choice is said to offer Denver's students more equitable access to high-performing schools. With any reform effort, increased student achievement for all must be the goal.

We can and should do better here in Santa Clara County. But right now, our system is geared more for adults than what’s best for the children we educate.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. (sigh)

    “As long as I hold this seat on the county Board of Education, I will strongly and loudly advocate for common ground over battle ground.”

    “If we are committed to eliminating the achievement gap we will stop the saber rattling and work together …”

    • You will never eliminate the achievement gap until a drug is discovered that will motivate lazy, unmotivated kids to study hard, graduate, work hard, and stay out of gangs.

    • You will never eliminate the achievement gap until you eliminate, either:

      A.) achievement, or
      B.) differences in abilities between individual human beings.

      It seems to me that there are two possible approaches:

      A.) give up
      B.) spend a hundred billion trillion gazillion dollars on programs, bureaucrats, social workers, counselors, theoreticians, and associated hanger-ons.

  2. Finally we see Dr Di Salvo’s true agenda..his support for a Dr. Weiss (sp?) who talks of education as a ‘consumer driven model’.

    Since when did education become a commodity and a ‘privilege’ instead of a basic right in this country? What’s wrong with providing excellent quality education to ALL?

    • > What’s wrong with providing excellent quality education to ALL?

      What kind of education?

      Not too long ago, I attended a graduation ceremony at a prestigious liberal arts college. As I watched the parade of newly minted Bachelors Degree holders, I had to wonder:

      “What is society going to do with all of these unskilled dreamers with $200,000 degrees in Race and Ethnic Studies?”

      Any ideas?

  3. Mr. DiSalvo, do you really want to reduce the number of district trustees in SCC? Start by eliminating the board you sit on. The excessive number of school boards and trustees in SCC is truly the Department of Redundancy Department

  4. Mr. Di Salvo is very naive if he thinks a basic aid district receiving $13K+ per student (Palo Alto Unified) is going to merge with a revenue limit district receiving only $8K per student (East Side Union High). He also fails to account for the wealthier districts voting for large property taxes for their local schools. Until Mr. Di Salvo has the courage to address the great inequity in school funding in Santa Clara County, he is wasting his time dreaming about combining school districts.

  5. One of the criteria the Committee on School District Organization can consider when looking at combining districts, or allowing a neighborhood to transfer into an adjacent school district, is the financial situation which would result. If a district will lose money by allowing properties to transfer into another district, the district will be against the transfer, and the county committee will vote no to any transfer.

    I agree with Steveo – as long as there are inequities in per pupil funding, wealthier districts will have no incentive to merge with other districts.

  6. We should start with Burbank School District (K-8) which is a one school district located in a poorer area of town where the number of people who can vote or run for office is very limited; a large number of people in Burbank (a county pocket surrounded by San Jose) are immigrants with low-education levels, many of who do not speak English. Burbank has been plagued by naive or unscrupulous board members over the years. Currently, Burbank feeds into the Campbell Union HIgh School District’s Del Mar High School which is over a mile away, yet the school is across the street from Lincoln High School in the San Jose Unified School District. Burbank should be absorbed into the San Jose Unified School District so that Burbank students can benefit from close proximity to Lincoln High and relationships that could be created between Lincoln and Burbank. It is absurd that Burbank is not part of SJUSD.

  7. bureaucracy . Eliminating , or merging school districts in my view will create a new bureaucracy . There are so many legal issues with combined districts , that they won’t just revolve around children . You might ask is what are you going to do with employees ? Most how much of administration cost be eliminated when combined ? Most of all state money will have to be re formulated for the now larger school districts that would require more state scrutiny . It might seem like a good idea , but combing school districts leads to school closures in my understanding .

    • It seems to me that too many school districts leads to inequity. School districts in poorer areas have less money than school districts in wealthier districts. Combine the districts and you tend to get a more even distribution of assets. With fewer districts you will also have less redundancy of expensive administrators and board members. Believe me I have seen this up close.

  8. May The God of Israel bring blessings and good news to all of the students of santa clara county for many long years to come. Amen. May all public schools be united together as ONE. LOve and Unity is the answer.