History Lesson: The Santa Clara County School System, Explained

Partly due to its rural past, Santa Clara County has 31 separate school districts. And it’s one of only five counties where the top superintendent isn’t elected by voters.

PUBLISHED NOV 19, 2021 12:26 A.M.
Share this:  
Santa Clara County’s 265,000 students are spread among 31 school districts.

Santa Clara County’s 265,000 students are spread among 31 school districts.   Daniel Penfield / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. 4.0 Share-Alike License

Santa Clara County boasts a population of almost 2 million people (sixth most in California) and 15 incorporated cities. There are nearly 265,000 enrolled school students in the county, spread among 31 separate school districts. The complex melange of districts ranges in size from tiny Lakeside Joint School District, with all of 74 students, to the sprawling San Jose Unified School District, with more than 36,600.

While enrollment has certainly grown, the county has actually trimmed down its array of districts over the past 120 years. At the turn of the 20th century, Santa Clara schools served 14,320 students—fewer than the 15,500 in Santa Clara Unified School District alone today—through a tangled web of 84 school districts overseeing 97 schools. Now there are a third as many districts, but the number of schools has more than quadrupled to 411 (circa 2020).

Back in the early 1900s, it was the job of the county superintendent to visit every one of those individual schools at least once during the course of a year, as well as to decide which textbooks would be used, and to test and certify the county’s 562 teachers.

Today, more than 13,000 teachers work in Santa Clara schools, a ratio of 21.1 students for every teacher, according to 2018-2019 data (the most recent available). That ratio is approximately the same as the student-teacher ratio throughout the state (21.0).

In this array of 31 school districts, some overlap each other in what the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury in 2010 called a “convoluted” configuration. The often confusing organization of the county’s school system, the grand jury explained, dates back to the early 1960s, when the largely agricultural county experienced an influx of technology companies and defense contractors that still define the character of the region six decades later.

The newly industrialized Santa Clara County transitioned in a hurry from an idyllic farming region to a heavily developed urban-suburban megalopolis. Small communities, many with just a single school, that had been spaced out by miles of open land were mashed together, with the outlines of school districts sometimes blurring in the process.

The grand jury report in 2010, “Achieving School District Efficiency Through Consolidation,” recommended combining at least some of the districts to increase efficiency and improve education by allowing smoother communication and sharing of resources. But more than a decade later, the county still has 31 school districts, each with its own elected school board—and its own superintendent, appointed by those boards.

The County Superintendent: Elected vs. Selected

As it has since 1852, the year that California created its public education system, Santa Clara County has had a single superintendent overseeing K-12 education throughout the county. That county superintendent is the head of the Santa Clara County Office of Education (SCCOE), who is appointed to the position by the SCCOE Board of Education. These trustees run for office in seven different districts, known as “areas.” 

Each of California’s 58 counties has a county superintendent, but Santa Clara County is one of only five to appoint its superintendent. The other 53 let the voters decide. In a 2018 report, however, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury again examined the education system, this time urging the county to switch to elections for superintendent.

In the report bluntly titled “Time to Elect the Superintendent,” the grand jury noted that, at the time, the county Board of Education had cycled through five superintendents in the previous 11 years.

The grand jury attributed this high turnover rate—which it estimated to cost the county’s taxpayers more than $1 million in costs associated with finding and hiring a new superintendent—to “inherent tension” between superintendents and the Board of Ed that appoints them. The Santa Clara board, the grand jury found, frequently “exceeded its authority” by poking into the day-to-day operation of the SCCOE, which is supposed to be the superintendent’s job.

“The challenge of the Superintendent, who has independent constitutional and statutory authority, is appeasing BOE trustees who, as a Board, has the authority to terminate the ‘at will’ Superintendent,” the grand jury noted.

On the other hand, the grand jurors concluded, elected superintendents see students as their “constituents” and are freed of pressure to kowtow to the board. When the grand jury compared the tenures of appointed superintendents in Santa Clara to elected ones in other counties, it found that the appointees ended up with considerably shorter terms.

SCCOE’s Evolving Role

At the time of the grand jury report, the previous four appointed superintendents in Santa Clara County averaged terms of 2.5 years. Elected superintendents would serve four-year terms, and the most recent two in San Mateo, Alameda and Contra Costa counties averaged 8.5 years in office.

As with the previous grand jury report recommending unification of several school districts, the 2018 report’s recommendations have not been adopted. Santa Clara has not made the move to elect its superintendent.

In Santa Clara County, the superintendent situation appears to have settled down since the 2018 appointment of Mary Ann Dewan, who served as interim superintendent starting in November 2017 after the scandal-ridden tenure of her predecessor, Jon Gundry. After a string of harassment allegations and questionable financial practices, Gundy stepped aside, collecting a $150,000 severance payment on his way out the door.

Dewan officially became the 27th Santa Clara County superintendent in July of 2018, taking over a role that is designed to provide support services to the 31 district superintendents, county schools and of course, students throughout the county.

Like the county’s education system itself, the superintendent’s role has evolved over the years. When the position was created in 1852, the job was simply handed to the county assessor, because the superintendent’s role was then seen as a tax collector. The state collected five cents per $100 in income as a school tax, while the county took another two cents. The superintendent made sure people paid up.

About 100 years later, in 1950, California revised its state education code to redefine the County Office of Education’s role—and as a result, the superintendent’s role—as one of improving educational services and promoting equal opportunity for all students. In the subsequent decade, the SCCOE started new programs for students with disabilities and those in “alternative” education programs—including a new program to offer high school education to boys in the juvenile correctional system.

The redefinition stuck. By its own description, the SCCOE is now “a comprehensive education resource center with fiscal, administrative, human resources, instructional and student service functions.”

Support California Local

$10 • $25 • $50 • Our Impact

Long form articles which explain how something works, or provide context or background information about a current issue or topic.

This article is tagged with:
Related Articles
Water in Santa Clara County is delivered by Valley Water, and numerous other water agencies.
Santa Clara County’s Multiple Water Districts, Explained
How does the water you drink and use for washing and every other function get to you in Santa Clara County?
Like most California counties, Santa Clara County empanels not one, but two grand juries.
Demystifying the Grand Jury
Grand jurors investigate criminal felonies, but also the functions of government itself.
The Old Courthouse in San Jose has been in operation since 1868.
The Santa Clara County Superior Court System — Explained
The court system is our most direct contact with the government. Here's a brief explanation of Santa Clara County's Superior Court, how it works and what it does.
Join Us Today!