Voters to decide next November on mergers of districts

Posted on December 23, 2007 | Type: In the News | Author: Sonu Munshi
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Administrators across the state say the school-district-unification plans sent to Gov. Janet Napolitano are not the answer to higher academic results.

The report submitted Friday by the Arizona School District Redistricting Commission would affect more than 330,000 Arizona students.

Twenty-seven districts would replace the existing 76 elementary and high-school districts, eliminating 49 districts of the state's 227.

Napolitano spokeswoman Jeanine L'Ecuyer said that the governor's role in the process is limited to receiving the plan and that it doesn't require her approval.

That means voters in the nine affected counties will decide through the November ballot whether to pass the plans. It's a first for Arizona, where unification has never before been attempted statewide.

"It's up to the voters now," commission Chairman Martin Shultz said.

The idea is to reduce duplicative administrative cost, align curriculum so student transition to high school is smoother, equalize elementary and high school teacher salaries and put more money overall into classrooms, Shultz said.

But plans received opposition from many school-board members and educators.

One of the most talked-about plans is one that would combine Phoenix Union and its 13 feeder elementary school districts to create a mega district with about 112,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

Under the 2005 state law that created the commission, unification proposals would not take effect unless approved by a majority of voters in every individual district.

That's the last hope for school superintendents and boards, many of whom say there's no data to justify unification.

Steve Johnston, president of the Glendale Elementary School District board, said he and his colleagues hope to express their dissatisfaction with the plan to the governor.

He added that action committees are being formed and money being raised ahead of the November vote to make sure voters are informed about the concerns.

Many questions about funding for new high schools, equalizing salaries and taxes remain.

A big issue is Career Ladder funding, a program supplementing teacher salaries, in some districts.

Shultz said if a district is part of the Career Ladder program and if it merges with another district, under the law they would be able to expand funding to all the schools, contingent on school board approval.

But Kevin Clayborn, Glendale Union High School District governing board president, said the commission has been deferring other questions to the new school boards, once formed.

If unification is approved, the new boards in affected districts would not be elected until 2010 and would take office in January 2011.

"We need answers now, not after the fact," Clayborn said.

School officials said aligning of curriculum is done already, as is standardization, through the state board of education and the AIMS test.

Shultz said because of disparities in various districts, it's hard to nail it down to a general figure on financial impact. The difference in taxation would be marginal, up or down.

Research backs some of the concerns, said Matthew Ladner, vice president for research at the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank that published a study about consolidation. The study indicates that big school districts are hard to manage and parents find it hard to connect with teachers.

Ladner said there is no evidence of reduced administrative costs, and they may even go up, nor is there a dramatic increase in academic test scores.

"The story then is spending goes up, scores decline and the gains fail to materialize," Ladner said.

School officials in district after district echo that sentiment.

Gary Walker, superintendent of Valley Union High School District in Elfrida, said that he supports the idea of aligning curriculum but that schools are so spread out in Cochise County that coordination among schools up to 30 miles apart would only take away local autonomy.

In Yuma, eight of the nine school districts will be affected. Tom Tyree, Yuma County superintendent of schools, said the biggest grouse in their county has been lack of inclusion in the entire process, save for a visit from a commission representative.

"Even that was to more or less tell us about what's going to happen, not asking us," Tyree said.

Sen. Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, whose bill led to the creation of the commission, said she's looking forward to seeing the voters pass the initiative.

"They need to decide whether as taxpayers they want to pay for two or five or 14 superintendents and transportation directors or one," Gray said.

Shultz said additional legislation likely will be introduced to give affected districts longer to unify if voters pass plans.

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