CAMARILLO — It's the educational equivalent of a divorce, complete with custody dispute.
Officials with Camarillo's elementary school district are studying a plan to bring award-winning Adolfo Camarillo High School under their control. Problem is, the Oxnard Union High School District already has custody of the school and isn't looking to give it up.
The process known as unification has been a topic of casual discussion in Camarillo for years. In recent days, however, unification has become the burning issue about town, kindled by interest from two newly elected school trustees and a grass-roots parents' group.
As early as today, a consultant could deliver a unification study to the Pleasant Valley School District for trustees' consideration at a Dec. 10 meeting. The study, an update of an earlier report, will look at the financial, racial and educational implications of such a move, which could take more than two years to complete.
The report is likely to trigger an emotional debate that could pit neighboring communities against each other.
"As a parent, I want what's best for my kids," said Ann O'Grady, a Camarillo mother of five who circulated a petition asking the Pleasant Valley school board to consider unification. "If the study comes back positive, great. Let's move forward. If it comes back negative, then forget it.
"I don't say this will be a breeze," she added. "I know we may suffer for a few years, but it will be worth it. Is it the best thing for the education of Camarillo kids? I think it would be."
While backers argue that the move would help bolster curriculum, some Oxnard officials fear that it would further segregate whites and Latinos in the heavily minority Oxnard high school district, which covers grades 9 to 12. Officials at Pleasant Valley, which comprises kindergarten through eighth grade, said this is not their intention.
"How can you say [Camarillo High] has problems with curriculum when it's recognized nationally?" asked Robert Valles, Oxnard Union High trustee. "Are there other motives to unification other than curriculum? [Unification advocates] want to control their own students. I guess they're trying to shelter them from the real world.
"If I wasn't comfortable with the diversity in the Oxnard district or in California, I would move out of the state," he added. "They're not addressing it, but race is the major undercurrent here. I guess they don't want their children with our diversity."
On its face, the unification proposal makes logistical sense. But the details prove dicier.
Camarillo is a growing city of 61,000--larger than Moorpark, which has a unified school district. Camarillo High School, which is full to capacity, is already within the city and elementary school district's boundaries.
If the district were unified, Pleasant Valley trustees could craft a curriculum that flows logically from the fundamentals instilled in kindergarten through the rigors of advanced-placement classes in high school.
High school parents wouldn't have to drive to school board meetings in Oxnard to tell trustees their concerns. They would have ample opportunity to build relationships with administrators.
"If you were to wave a magic wand and create the city of Camarillo right now, you would make the school district unified," said Pleasant Valley Supt. Andy LaCouture, who has not taken a position on unification. "It just makes sense."
Meanwhile, Camarillo High School--recently honored with a Blue Ribbon award, the federal education department's highest honor--has built a history as the academic jewel in the Oxnard Union High School District.
Camarillo High students routinely post the highest test scores in the district and some of the highest in all of Ventura County.
Students from predominantly white Camarillo help diversify the Oxnard district, which is about 27% white and 73% minority. If the 3,300 Camarillo children were to leave Oxnard, the remaining district would be much more segregated: 14% with and 86% minority (overwhelmingly Latino), according to calculations by Oxnard Assistant Supt. Richard Canady.
Numbers such as these are what's troubling Valles. He and his colleagues have not taken a formal stance on unification, but have retained a lawyer to help protect Oxnard's interests.
Camarillo mother Jennifer H. Miller, on a slate with two others, campaigned for the school board on a unification platform.
Miller and slate-mate Ron Speakman were both elected, along with incumbent Val Rains, who said she would take a critical look at unification before making any decisions.
Miller said unification is not a racial matter; rather, it involves local control of curriculum. Were the school district to unify, Miller envisions more technology and music education for students.