By Sara Beth Williams–
In a controversial move last month, Vice Mayor Tim Schaefer proposed the formation of a volunteer commission to explore the possibility of breaking away from the San Juan Unified School District and establishing a Citrus Heights Unified School District.
“I think it’s gotten too big to manage our local schools,” Schaefer said during an Oct. 25 Strategic Planning retreat at City Hall, referencing the San Juan district. As a top reason for his proposal, Schaefer said many of the public schools in Citrus Heights have been under-performing “since I moved here.”
Schaefer previously brought the idea up during an Oct. 13 City Council meeting, where he said his proposal was prompted by reading a newly released book on the history of how Citrus Heights battled with Sacramento County to form its own city in 1997. He also mentioned the idea of a new school district during a strategic planning session last year.
School district splits aren’t unheard of, with the affluent City of Malibu in southern California currently pursuing a split with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, in an effort to form a new school district only covering Malibu. Squabbles and negotiations largely about loss of funding and revenue details have been seen in Malibu, with a recent temporary agreement between the city and school district expected to be followed by hearings and consideration by the LA County Office of Education, with final approval potentially going before voters in 2024.
According to the California Department of Education, the San Juan Unified School District is the 10th largest school district in California, as of the 2021-22 school year. Citrus Heights has 12 public schools, all of which are rated at a 5-out-of-10 and below, according to Greatschools.com, with the exception of Cambridge Heights Elementary. District schools in neighboring Fair Oaks all rank 5-out-of-10 or above, except for Northridge Elementary.
The district confirmed in an email to The Sentinel that several district representatives were in attendance during the city’s Oct. 25 strategic planning meeting, including Deputy Superintendent Melissa Bassanelli, who is slated to become the new superintendent of schools beginning in January.
“I’m here to express my strong desire to work in partnership with the city in terms of development and planning, as well as in support of our schools and communities,” Bassanelli said in a statement during a public comment portion of the meeting. “We’re here because we know our partnership is important in your planning.”
Bassanelli went on to outline improvements and new programs occurring within Citrus Heights schools, highlighting the district’s summer school program.
Councilmember Jeannie Bruins, who is set to retire at the end of this year, said establishing a new school district in Citrus Heights would be a “huge undertaking.”
Bruins recognized several struggles that local schools have had over the years, particularly in keeping students from enrolling in schools outside the district, but Bruins said it would be “frustrating” and “complex” to attempt to establish a local school district.
“If the council decides to move forward, I would encourage you to also give the new administration and the new [SJUSD] board an opportunity to do the right thing,” Bruins said. “To come up with solutions to the chronic problems in Citrus Heights with low-performing schools.”
Mayor Porsche Middleton concurred with Bruins’s cautious optimism regarding the incoming district leadership and said that, while she isn’t opposed to forming a new school district, she is in favor of waiting and considering all of the options before “we open our wallets.” Later on, Middleton said if the city chose to explore forming its own district, it could be seen as “an aggressive tactic” by new school district leadership.
Ten candidates are currently running for four seats on the SJUSD Board of Education, including current councilmember Steve Miller, who is also set to retire from the council at the end of 2022. Miller was not present during the portion of the strategic planning meeting where schools were discussed.
Currently, there are no school board members who live in Citrus Heights. However, two new seats have just been added to the board, with trustee area boundaries guaranteeing at least one of seven seats will be held by a resident of Citrus Heights.
The additional seats and the incoming superintendent have prompted an optimistic outlook for some, that change for the better may be on the way.
City Manager Ash Feeney echoed comments from Bruins and Middleton, saying the incoming superintendent seemed “more receptive” and willing to engage in discussions regarding local and district community engagement during recent conversations.
Schaefer defended his proposal during the strategic planning meeting, saying “I don’t know why we can’t do it congruently,” in reference to those advocating a general wait-and-see approach.
The decision of whether or not to move forward with exploring establishing a local school district did not receive the necessary majority support needed, with two council members in favor and two opposed. However, there was some indication that the issue may be taken up at a later date.
Bruins suggested revisiting the issue in six months, or halfway through the school year, and Councilman Bret Daniels expressed optimism that the necessary third vote of support would be had in the near future.
“That simply just delayed things,” Daniels later told The Sentinel regarding the split vote. “I do believe a third council member will support that after the election.”
Daniels also accused Miller of “ducking out” of the meeting for discussion about the school district, and said it indicated Miller would not have the “courage” to be a voice for parents and kids if elected to the school board.
Asked to respond, Miller told The Sentinel he had informed the city manager and others at the beginning of the meeting that he had a doctors appointment and would need to leave early, but said he “would not support forming our own school district at this time.”
“We need to give our new board representative and Superintendent a chance to address our grievances before taking drastic measures,” said Miller, also questioning where funding would come from for the proposal. “It would be extremely expensive to form a new district and we would be faced with a difficult decision concerning San Juan and Mesa Verde High Schools. We currently do not have enough students residing in our city to justify two high schools.”
While further action on forming a new school district appears on hold for now, the council opted to move forward with studying whether to place police officers in schools to enhance safety.
In a statement emailed to The Sentinel on Monday, the district said it looks forward to working with the city “in strengthening the relationship between San Juan Unified, Citrus Heights elected officials and the Citrus Heights community at large to support student and community success.”
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