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District Fever 

It’s election time and you are super excited about sewers and schools

Never discount the potential for excitement in a minor election. School boards? Community services districts? No snoozing, citizen! This is your chance to dive into the conflicted heart of what makes us human: the desire to promote one's (superior) ideas over another's, coupled with the altruistic desire to serve one's community. (Or, through the gimlet eye: wanting power and/or to fill one's days interestingly.)

In the Nov. 8 election, voters will watch the drama unfold on the boards of a half dozen school districts, four community service districts, and one mysterious Resort Improvement District. (That would be in Shelter Cove, where recently a sharp-tongued phone-hanger-upper at the RID refused to answer a simple inquiry about what issues the district grapples with because she doesn't "like talking to newspaper reporters because they never tell the truth.")

Plus, these districts and their boards educate our children or deal with our poop, provide us with clean drinking water and maintain nice parks for us to dawdle in. So regardless of whether there's a power struggle or not, they impact us hugely.

Case in point: Up in Willow Creek, three positions are open on the five-member community services district board. The district, among other things, manages three big parks and the town's water system. It recently put in a new water system. Now it's studying whether it can afford a new wastewater treatment system for gray water from restaurants and other water-intensive businesses in the downtown district. If it doesn't put in the system, the town essentially can't grow: The ground on the main drag is so saturated that the county has forbidden Willow Creek to allow another restaurant to be opened until it improves drainage, says board member Vonnie Gower. Gower's seat is not up for election, but her sister-in-law is running for one of the open seats.

Gower says there haven't been any complaints about how the board's been directing things. "People are just interested in serving," she says.

Some districts are embattled. The Manila Community Services District's board, for instance, apparently had a storm-out at one of its recent meetings. Says board member Dendra Dengler -- who admits she's often alone in her opinions on the board -- it got real ugly: "Somebody from the audience made a comment about the way the meeting was going, the president [Michael Fennell] didn't like the comment, it got heated, and Michael wanted to call the police."

Three seats are up for election in Manila (not Dengler's), with seven candidates, including one incumbent. Manila's got weighty issues, including whether to annex Samoa and Fairhaven; rising water rates (because of the loss of the pulp mill, which had subsidized the system's costs); whether to lower or raise water and sewer connection fees; loss of its recreation program; a lawsuit over dune restoration; and financial intrigue -- a confusing saga over a $245,000 deficit and a proposal to write it off.

Meanwhile, the McKinleyville Community Service District is suing the county over its multifamily housing plan. Lots of fun there for the board, which has two open seats and three candidates vying for them -- including preeminent thorn-in-the-side David Elsebusch, whose avid citizenship puts us all to shame.

Finally, the Humboldt Community Services District is finally moving forward with the Martin Slough Interceptor project -- you know, that little $22 million overhaul of the system that collects and carries away wastewater from the greater Eureka area. Four folks find that interesting enough to vie for three open seats. The nice thing about the district, says its general manager, Steve Davidson, is it doesn't "get bogged down too much in politics."

Which, ahem, means the board can just take care of business.

As for the school board races -- well, everyone knows those are intensely localized affairs. If you're into it, it's a big, big deal. If you're not -- naturally that just means you don't care if the kids stay dumb. Kidding.

But what we really want to talk about here -- at the expense of more ink on the school board races -- is Measure U. Measure U was put on the ballot at the request of two school districts in the City of Fortuna, Rohnerville School District and Fortuna Union Elementary School District. It would consolidate the two K-8 districts into one district, resulting in one administration instead of two overseeing a combined 1,336 student body (current enrollment) and a common curriculum. The idea is to save some $178,000, through consolidation of the administrative functions and elimination of one superintendent.

Up until a couple of months ago, everybody loved this idea. The school boards voted for it. The superintendents of each district welcomed it, even though there'd only be one superintendent position in the new regime. At public hearings there seemed to be overwhelming assent.

But now there's an organized opposition, led by 28-year Rohnerville School Board member Marilyn Strehl.

"My mind has changed," she says. "Initially I felt it would be a benefit to our students because I thought there would be more money available to spend in the classrooms."

After further research, she says, she's concluded that there remain too many unanswered questions about how the consolidation would take place. Would any of the four schools in the districts (two elementary and two middle) close? What about the new charter school, attached to Rohnerville, that opened this year -- how would it be affected? Would there be enough money for all of the schools to have sports teams? Would any of the savings from consolidation be spent in actual classrooms? Would class sizes shrink? Whose curriculum would be chosen? After the two-year protection period granted all classified staff, would some of them be cut?

Strehl says she figures that money saved by eliminating one superintendent position would be consumed by such things as negotiations to equalize wages -- teachers' salaries, and the rate at which they increase, differ between the districts. She adds that the two districts are already sharing some administrative functions; isn't that enough?

Don Brown, a board member at the Fortuna district for 2½ years and a vocal proponent of the movement for consolidation, agrees there are specifics to iron out. But he says it's a district consolidation, not a school consolidation; there'd be the same number of schools, for instance, and they'd keep their sports teams.

"I just don't understand how or why anybody could be against it," he says. "It's about saving money."

He says as enrollment has declined, there's been less money coming to the districts from the state, resulting in 28 percent budget cuts. Last year, Rohnerville had to shut down its library and its music program -- although this year they're both back.

Brown also allows there will be immediate costs to consolidation -- for instance, they'll need to hire a new school psychologist to replace one they currently share with a number of small districts. Look at the big picture, he admonishes: long-term cost savings and having a unified purpose.

"I don't understand why one town of 10,000 people needs three school districts (the high school has its own district)," he says, adding with a snort: "Help me understand why we need 32 little school districts in Humboldt County when there are only 144,000 people living here? How does that impact our voice in Sacramento? It means we attack Sacramento like a swarm of mosquitoes instead of going in there like a dive bomber."

See why these smaller elections are fun?

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About The Author

Heidi Walters

Heidi Walters worked as a staff writer at the North Coast Journal from 2005 to 2015.

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