Weed parents push for new school district. How does reunification work, and why?

Mike Meyer
Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers
Siskiyou Union High School District logo

A group of high school parents in Weed are pushing for a louder voice in how their kids are taught during the COVID-19 pandemic – in the classroom or online at home.

A handful of them spoke in June at the Weed City Council meeting to say they were not listened to by their school board during the year, despite multiple attempts. The parents said they want to explore the feasibility of removing Weed High School from the Siskiyou Union High School District, and unifying it with Weed Elementary School in a new district.

By passing a resolution, the Weed City Council could set in motion a study during which the Siskiyou County Office of Education would look at the finances, liability, staffing, and other impacts of a move, both positive and negative.

If done by resolution, there would be no cost to the city nor to school districts to initiate the study. Otherwise, the districts could use a petition of affected voters to get the study going, but that method would cost money.

The process for reunifying Weed schools was discussed last Tuesday during a joint meeting of the SUHSD and the Weed Union Elementary School District. Taking part were school board members, county education staff and members of the public. The meeting was held at the Weed Community Center.

The SUHSD includes the high schools in Weed, Mount Shasta, McCloud and Happy Camp. WUESD provides leadership for just Weed Elementary.

All those who enter Weed Elementary School have their temperature taken on the first day of school in early June. Also open for in-person instruction at the beginning of the school year was McCloud Elementary School and Dunmsuir High School. Mount Shasta Elementary, Sisson, Dunsmuir Elementary and Butteville Elementary schools opted for distance learning models to start the year.

Why do parents want to break away to a new district?

The parents' frustration last year was kindled to some degree as they watched Weed Elementary School offer moms and dads a choice for their kids' mode of learning: the district made it a priority to keep their campus open for in-person learning.

"It was just refreshing to hear about their leadership in challenging and trying times," said Kevin Charter, a parent with a son at Weed High School and a niece at Mount Shasta High School. Charter was one of those who addressed the council in June.

"Somehow Weed Elementary was able to accommodate parent requests, to the point that almost 110 students moved from (Mount Shasta Elementary School and Sisson) to Weed Elementary last year," Charter said. "How could other schools figure this out and we couldn't?"

"We made it a priority to do whatever we could to maintain in-person learning, even if only for a few families," said Jon Ray, Weed Elementary's superintendent/principal. "We were open all year last year, with 90% choosing in-person and 10% choosing distance learning.”

Elementary schools and high schools are different, SUHSD superintendent says

But SUHSD superintendent Mike Matheson said the choices made by his district came about because the high school setting is different.

“Elementary students stay together in one classroom and don't cross paths with other students on the campus. We can't 'cohort' our students in small pods like the elementary school was able to do. High school students move from class to class to class, mixing with other students all the way through the day,”  Matheson explained.

Siskiyou Union High School District superintendent Mike Matheson

Another source of disagreement last year stemmed from SUHSD's handling of a COVID-19 outbreak in the schools, just as the district was moving from at-home Zoom learning to “hybrid” – certain weekdays in the classroom and the other days at home.

"The COVID-19 was at Mount Shasta," Charter said, "so they shut down all four high schools? I mean, go ahead, shut down Mount Shasta, but leave the others open. Why would Happy Camp, which is very isolated from Mount Shasta, have to go to distance learning?"

"It was not Mount Shasta that moved Weed and the others back to distance learning," Matheson said. "That was last November, we were following a district re-opening plan and had moved the schools to hybrid. Then the county and state went to the purple tier and we had positive cases on some of our campuses. It wasn't only Mount Shasta. We had cases at Weed, Happy Camp and Mount Shasta.

"As a preemptive safety move, I moved the entire district back to distance learning," Matheson continued. "Some of the parents didn't like what we did, but we had just as many who were appreciative of the steps we took last year."

Under California's "Blueprint for a Safer Economy" tier system, which was discontinued in March, purple was the most restrictive tier, representing counties that had the most widespread COVID-19 outbreaks. The purple tier had the most impact on the ability of schools in a county to reopen for in-person instruction: they were told not to open for in-person instruction, though the guideline was not always followed by individual districts.

What are the next steps?

If members of the public and school administrators find that reunification of the two schools into a new district is feasible, then the county's office of education would send the study to the California Department of Education.

With the state's approval, Siskiyou Superintendent of Schools Kermith Walters would call for an election among the affected voters.

The city council will meet this Thursday, Sept. 9, and WHS parents are expected to ask that a resolution for reunification be included on a future agenda.

"If you are interested, let your council member know," said Debbie Goltz, who chaired the joint meeting and is president of the WUESD.