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The San Diego County Office of Education, the under-the-radar agency I profiled yesterday, plays a big role in helping small school districts.

Del Mar Union School District Superintendent Jim Peabody said that when he led the tiny high school district in Julian, he called the office for help on a wide range of issues two to four times a month.

But what about the biggest school district in the county? Unlike the small and midsized school districts, San Diego Unified runs its own payroll, is building its own data center for computing and has its own stable of curriculum and instruction experts. It’s less likely to turn to the office for help.

“Our finance department probably has double or triple the number of financial analysts the County Office of Education has,” said San Diego Unified board president Richard Barrera.

The County Office still holds San Diego Unified accountable for coming up with solid budgets, like any school district in the county. That could be especially important for San Diego Unified if the school district tries to avoid sending out pink slips by banking on the passage of tax extensions — an idea that financial experts have frowned on. Remember, it was the County Office that flagged the San Diego Unified budget last year, wary of deficit spending.

While San Diego Unified tends to rely less on the County Office than other districts, many people there say the relationship has gotten closer in recent years. County Superintendent Randolph Ward called it “a record relationship with San Diego Unified,” especially when it comes to teacher training.

For instance, Ward and San Diego Unified Superintendent Bill Kowba have partnered up on a task force on the achievement gap, which held a recent event on English learners. The closer ties may also come from the growing number of former San Diego Unified staffers who are now at the County Office.

The million-dollar-question is whether San Diego Unified should be relying more on its county counterparts, either for savings or for expertise. Former school board member John de Beck argued that the office should play a major part in San Diego Unified’s operations and could help it whittle down its central offices more.

“They’ve got a top-notch credentialing department that could refer teachers out to jobs,” de Beck said. “But the city schools have basically drawn a firewall between them and the county.”

Outsourcing more operations to the county office is an idea that crops up from time to time in San Diego Unified budget talks. But Barrera said their internal analyses don’t show any savings from doing it.

“Somebody still needs to do the work,” Barrera said. “So if the county is doing the work, it basically means they’ve got to hire our people.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5665 and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/emilyschoolsyou.

Emily Alpert

Emily Alpert was formerly the education reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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