Bill gives counties watchdog role over merger disputes

Rising interest in school district unification playing out in school boards throughout the state has prompted lawmakers to examine ways to simplify and encourage the process.

Legislation by Sen. Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield, would authorize county superintendents to nullify fiscal actions taken by lame duck school board members once voters have approved a merger.

Fuller said that as consolidation activity increases, taxpayer interests need to be protected.

We need to ensure the laws are designed to protect the taxpayers and the new school districts during the transition period between voter approval and the appointment of a new governing board" she said. "During this interim window, it is reasonable for the county superintendent to act as a fiscal watchdog."

The bill arrives as lawsuits are only now being settled surrounding a 2007 merger of three elementary districts that created what is now Twin Rivers Unified.

The proposal is aimed at drawing clear lines of authority during the eight-to-13 month intermediary period between the time voters approve a merger and the newly unified district seizes jurisdiction - a period that proved controversial in the Twin Rivers merger.

A report last month from the non-partisan Legislative Analyst concluded one method for cutting state costs is for lawmakers to eliminate incentives for small districts to remain autonomous.

Included among the LAO recommendations were suggestions to cap minimum district student populations at 100, cut certain grants available to small districts and repeal a law prohibiting districts from laying off classified employees two years following unification.

Fuller's bill, SB 821, unanimously passed the Senate this month and is expected to sail through the Assembly without opposition.

SB 821 would give outgoing school boards a minimum of 10 days to notify the county superintendent in writing of a planned action that would have a fiscal impact on the existing or new school district.

Following a review, the county superintendent could determine the action unnecessary for the "immediate functioning" of the existing or newly formed district, and issue a stay or rescind order on it.

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