Jefferson School. Photo by Kaitlyn Fontaine.
Jefferson School. Photo by Kaitlyn Fontaine.

In the heat of election campaign battles, there is an underlying challenge faced by rural school districts across the county. School districts in sparsely populated areas have a more difficult time filling school board positions than urban and suburban schools, often requiring more effort on the part of the districts to reach out into the community to fill those vacancies. Crucial to the accessibility of education in rural areas of San Benito County, these schools are an indispensable resource. 

On this year’s ballot, multiple school districts in rural areas have board of trustees positions up for election with no candidates filed to fill them. Bitterwater-Tully Union School District and Tres Pinos School District, serving 33 and 63 students respectively, both have three vacancies up for reelection. Panoche School District, with 2021-22 enrollment at 11 students, has two positions open. Jefferson School District, with an annual enrollment of 6 students, will have one position on their school board to be filled. 

With these board positions left vacant after the Nov. 8 election, it is then up to the individual district and remaining board members to appoint willing individuals to serve in those trustee positions in either a two year or four year term. In spite of the challenges posed by smaller population sizes, members of these communities continue to step up to preserve the quality of education in rural districts.

Cienega Union School District, serving 24 students, has three positions up for reelection, all of which will be filled by returning school board members. Board president Patrick Wirz continues to serve on the board as he has since 1975. Born and raised in San Benito County, Wirz joined the board shortly after returning to the family ranch from college. He has since had three children attend and graduate from Cienega School and now has grandchildren attending. On several occasions he has considered stepping down, but was asked to stay. 

“I felt, being that my family were taxpayers in the district, I wanted to make sure that my kids would have the best education that they could get,” said Wirz. “I wanted to ensure that the money that was spent at the school was spent wisely. I figured it was my civic duty to contribute something to the community and part of that is serving on the board.” 

Despite various attempts to speak with additional sources from rural districts, there was a general reluctance to comment on the subject. Some are difficult to reach because of unreliable cell service, others declined to comment based on a lack of confidence in their ability to accurately discuss the difficulties these areas face. 

Because Cienega Union School District is small, it faces challenges similar to those with pending vacant positions. Smaller student populations mean a smaller pool of parents and local residents to pull from to fill board spots; many of those families have demanding occupations that leave little time for service in a school board position. 

“There’s only so many hours in the day so a lot of people don’t have time. It’s hard for people to fit that into their schedule,” said Wirz. “In most of these rural districts, the area is pretty sparsely populated. I think it’s very important to the county that we keep the existing rural schools open.” 

County Superintendent of Schools, Krystal Lomanto, said that throughout the duration of her time on the job (she was elected June 2014), rural school districts have always been able to fill their board positions.

“It’s an incredible, small community and they do an exceptional job of educating kids in the rural setting. With rural school districts, because of their location, they are essential to educating families in those areas due to the distance they would have to drive in order to reach a larger school district,” she said. 

Rural schools such as Panoche and Bitterwatter-Tully save parents and elementary and middle school students from the 45-minute commute to go to school in Hollister. High school students don’t have a choice but to commute. Families in agricultural occupations, as is frequently the case in South County, rarely have schedules flexible enough to make that commute on a daily basis.

“If we didn’t have rural schools, these families would have to travel a long distance to have their child educated. It would be a significant hardship on our rural communities,” said Lomanto.


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Jenna is a graduate of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo with a degree in Agriculture Communications. During her time at Cal Poly, she became heavily involved in the Young Cattlemen's Association, Beef Unit, and...