Voters in Wasco on Tuesday will decide whether to merge the Wasco Union Elementary School District and the Wasco Union High School District.
Supporters say doing so would eliminate unnecessary duplication and smooth students' transition from middle school to high school. Opponents worry the move would decrease local control of schools.
The high school district was founded in 1915 and serves 1,745 students at Wasco High School and Wasco Independence High School. The elementary school district was founded in 1919 and serves 3,452 students in four elementary schools and Thomas Jefferson Middle School.
The Semitropic, Maple and Lost Hills school districts also feed into the high school district and were invited to join, as well, but opted out.
In addition to the question of whether to merge, voters will be considering 11 school board candidates running for seats on the five-member governing board that would oversee a combined district of 5,197 students if the measure passes.
Candidate S. Cruz Rodriguez opposes the measure, but he declined to say why or answer any questions when contacted by a reporter Monday. Rodriguez previously served on the elementary school board and now holds a seat on the high school board.
Wasco teachers are wary of the idea, too, because classified and certified staff would have to renegotiate existing labor agreements with the newly created district.
Elementary school teacher Rosalinda Chairez of the Wasco Teachers Association said she's also not convinced students would benefit.
"There's been no proof that a unified district would improve student achievement," she said. "Just the opposite, they could get lost in a bigger organization that's paying less attention to them."
Candidate Craig Fulwyler serves with Rodriguez on the high school district board and favors the merger.
"We're a tight knit community, and I think it just makes sense to have one K-12 district that's all on one page working together with curriculum alignment," he said.
Candidate R. Marty Jones serves on the elementary school board and also backs the measure.
He was formerly a director of maintenance, operations and transportation for the district and said he saw a lot of inefficiency in operating two systems when he worked for the schools.
"For the community and for a unified district, there is not much money coming from the state for public education, so it's the responsible thing to do in these fiscal times," Jones said.
In some ways, the issue is moot.
The two districts already share a superintendent and the position Jones held before he retired. Jones estimates the aggregate savings from that is between $150,000 and $175,000 a year.
Jones said there would be additional savings if the merger is approved.
But Kern County voters generally are fiercely protective of school boards made up of people from the neighborhoods schools serve.
Out of 58 counties in the state, only one has more school districts than Kern, according to the California Department of Education. Including the Kern County Superintendent of Schools Office, Kern has 49 districts for a population of 856,158.
Los Angeles County has the most districts, with 88 serving a population of nearly 10 million. Six other counties tie for the fewest districts with two each. They are Alpine, Amador, Del Norte, Mariposa, Plumas and Sierra.
Within Kern County, the Kern High School District is the largest with 37,070 students. Blake Elementary School District is the smallest in Kern with just six students.