Placer County Schools, Explained: The County is Home to 19 Districts With Roots as Early as 1853

Here are some facts and figures about the county’s school system.

PUBLISHED JAN 5, 2022 11:06 P.M.
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Placer County schools have a long history of educating young people in that rural  region.

Placer County schools have a long history of educating young people in that rural region.   Nick Ares / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 2.0 Share-Alike License

The Placer County educational system traces its origins at least back to 1882, when three young, idealistic and apparently well-to-do young teachers made their way from the East Coast to Auburn, California. The three men, recorded by history only as M.L. Fries, A.W. Sutphen, and M.W. Ward, showed up with a plan to raise funds to start a new college, and once they had collected $6,000 in contributions from community members, they each kicked in $1,500—almost $41,000 in today’s cash—of their own.

General Jo Hamilton, an Auburn resident and one of California’s most famous lawyers of the era,  twice serving as state attorney general, also donated to the cause. Hamilton offered a five-acre swath of his personal estate to the newly framed school, which by the following year had opened as Sierra Normal College and Business Institute, a place where (according to an ad in the Placer Argus newspaper) “students can enter at any time, select what studies they choose, and advance as rapidly as their attainments will permit.”

A “normal” college was a school that educated prospective school teachers, instructing them in the “norms” of the teaching profession.

School District Forms Around Single School

After just 14 years, the Normal College was gone. The new occupant of the building was Auburn High School. Six years later, the school changed its name to Placer High School, which soon moved into a new, brick schoolhouse built at a cost of $40,000, or about $1.2 million in 2021 dollars.

Then, in 1914 an entire school district was formed around the high school. That district, Placer Union High School District, continues to operate today, with five high schools, a charter school and an adult education school under its jurisdiction. The district, one of 19 in Placer County, serves about 4,000 students on a budget (as of 2019-2020) of somewhat over $47 million. There are more than 77,000 students enrolled in all district schools, according to the Education Data Partnership.

In a 2020 statement, administrators described the district as “not especially ethnically diverse,” but considerably more “socioeconomically diverse,” with 30 percent of its students requiring a free or reduced-price lunch program. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the district’s students are 83 percent white, only 10 percent Latinx and 1 percent Black. California’s population, according to the United States Census Bureau, is 37 percent white, 39 percent Latinx and 7 percent Black.

The PUHSD’s makeup is not much different from other Placer County school districts. Tiny Colfax Elementary School District, with just one school and 380 students in grades preschool through eighth, is 82 percent white and 10 percent Latinx, per NCES figures. The 10 schools in Dry Creek Joint Elementary School District have a student population that is 67 percent white, 13 percent Latinx, 4 percent Black. Western Placer Unified School District, the county’s largest with more than 7,200 students in 13 schools, is 71 percent white, 19 percent Latinx and 2 percent Black.

Unlike Placer Union High School District (which dates back to 1882), Dry Creek (“Excellence in Education Since 1876”), Colfax (with origins going back to 1853), and several other of the county’s districts, Western Placer Unified is relatively new. Formed in 1966 by unifying 12 previous districts, the WPUSD can still trace its origins to the county’s early days: The Central School District in Lincoln, where 12 of the district’s schools are located, was founded in 1872, and was the forerunner of the current district.

Office of Education Supports All County Districts

The Placer County Office of Education provides support services for all of the county’s school districts. The PCOE is governed by a seven-member board, elected from four designated areas, as well as a superintendent who, like superintendents in 53 of California’s 58 counties, is an elected official. As of 2021, that superintendent is Gayle Garbolino-Mojica, a longtime Roseville resident whose mother, Gina Garbolino, is a former mayor of that city. Her father, James Garbolino, is a retired Placer County Superior Court judge.

In 2006, Garbolino-Mojica handily defeated a former Auburn Union Elementary School District assistant superintendent, garnering 58 percent of the vote. She has held the post ever since, and won her fourth term in 2018. The day-to-day management of the education office, however, is carried out by a group of administrators called the “cabinet,” who report to the superintendent. The cabinet consists of seven members: a deputy superintendent, an associate superintendent for business services, four assistant superintendents and a chief communications officer. The office of education is a school district of its own, as well, with five schools and about 460 students, according to the NCES data.

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