A case for unification & where appropriate consolidation of school districts in arizona

Vice President, Government Affairs, Pinnacle West Capitol Corporation
Wednesday, January 1, 2003
Martin L. Schultz, BA & MA Education ASU


As I am compiling this document, and hopefully a compelling case for unification, and where appropriate, consolidation of school districts in Arizona, I am wondering why I am writing this case at all. Is it because the Chairman and CEO of my company, Bill Post, has set a standard for excellence for involvement in community affairs, and public policy, and reminds me we need to get the right things accomplished? Is it because Governor Napolitano has encouraged us by quoting her mentor, and my long time friend, John Frank, as he constantly assured us that all things are possible? Is it because House Education Chair Linda Gray and new State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne provide leadership in advocating movement on this important issue? Is it because Dr. Sandra Dowling has offered interesting ideas about an increasingly effective role for Arizona’s County School Superintendents? Is it because the Arizona Auditor General has recently produced data which validates my proposal? Is it because Penny Kotterman, head of the AEA, suggests these ideas have some charm for teachers and kids? Is it because many, many, smart, committed business and education leaders, and just plain folks, have influenced my thinking, encouraged me for decades.

Frankly, it feels like it is time to really modernize Arizona’s education systems.

Is this being written because the real greatest generation (no offense Mr. Brokaw) is represented by Jessica and Brittany Ater, our grandchildren, and they, and their school friends, deserve to have our substantial investment in education used, primarily, in their classrooms, and for their benefit? Is it because I have a BA and Masters Degree from ASU in education and educational administration, was a teacher and administrator in Arizona, decades ago, and still believe those professions to be some of the most noble in our society?

In this debate we need to command a laser-like focus on student opportunity for learning and teacher opportunity for teaching. While the stakes are large and change is tough, I assume all persons in this debate will remain civil. I also assume that final decisions will be made for the right educational reasons, and that we will not allow prejudice based on race, religion or creed to dominate.

Arizona’s school organization is 100 years old and is in need of some serious reorganization and unification. The Governor and Legislature recognize this and have established the School District Unification and Consolidation Commission (SB 1180, Chapter 316, and Laws 2002).

The bias in my document conforms with the intent of the legislation: two hundred and twenty-seven school district units, organized as they are now, is not the most efficient way to deliver the priceless service of teaching - learning.

The research suggests optimum size. If we are most efficient, the maximum amount of dollars can be allocated to the front-line, the school unit, and the principals and teachers who are the professionals working with the customers (a business term), our Arizona students. Organizing unified districts on a K-12 basis (I would prefer P-20, but that is another paper) will improve the "articulation" of the curriculum: educationspeak for first you learn to add, then multiply and eventually you tackle calculus. Learnings build upon each other, but Arizona’s historical school district organization does not facilitate these immutable laws of learning.

This paper is designed to examine major questions surrounding unification and consolidation of Arizona’s school districts. Major issues have been identified and a recommendation or action statement is provided. Hope it is helpful!

Importantly, it should be noted the topic of consolidation and/or unification has been debated in education circles since the demise of the one-room schoolhouse, which is even before I began teaching. A vast amount of research is available on the effects of unification and consolidation. I have studied this research but am sorry to report there is no single proposal that would satisfy everyone. Further, I am sorry to report there seems to be considerable misunderstanding and fear surrounding the potential effects of any re-organization program. These misunderstandings need to be dispelled.

Now, let’s take a deep breath, and do the right things for Arizona’s kids (and Arizona’s economy) by using the substantial body of evidence that supports the need for change.

The education system essentially traces its beginnings back to the late 1880’s. As settlers begin establishing permanent residences in Arizona they replicated the dominant delivery mechanism of the time, the one-room schoolhouse that was conveniently located within a horse ride from the farmhouse. In the cities, the educational "system" was similar to any urban setting of the era. As a result, there was nothing revolutionary about Arizona’s public schools or the Indian boarding schools that developed nearly thirty years later, distinguishing them from other schools in the nation.

Today, the only distinguishing factor for Arizona schools from neighboring states educational systems is the proliferation of common (a.k.a. K-8) school districts. During the 1950’s, most states evolved into unified (K-12) school systems. In Arizona, factors contributing to the continuance of common school districts included an extensive, ingrained, school trustee and administrative support infrastructure. Some suggest, and I concur the infrastructure that now serves us well also becomes a barrier to unification and/or consolidation.

The challenge now is how to effectuate change from an historic system, while striving to provide a quality educational system for Arizona’s children. Improving the educational quality, and streamlining the financial resources are key issues surrounding the consolidation or unification of school districts. A truly effective educational system should reflect efficiency and simplicity while preserving the best features of the existing system when taking into consideration the necessary changes in our society that will impact our educational process.

The Case for Unification and where appropriate Consolidation of Arizona School Districts:

In this document we will reveal the optimum school district sizes, offer a way to handle the transition of governing board membership, and how to modernize the role of the governing board, how to improve the effectiveness of the superintendent in the new organizational scheme, advocate for standards of administration, be bold and pay attention to the important detail of the modernization of school district names, recommend a plan for centralization of non academic functions, relook at school contracting authority, in light of modern business techniques, offer an approach to district configuration, and tackle the highly politicized issue of local control.

Hopefully by addressing ten of the toughest and most important unification and consolidation issues, the reader will conclude this transition is manageable, it is work worth doing, and school folks, legislators, business leaders will step up to the plate, and in their own way contribute to its enactment.

Research indicates the size of the local school district is a most important factor in determining a child’s success in school. Small districts are sometimes necessary due to geographic limitations but do not use the optimum number of resources. Large districts, on the other hand, can become bureaucratic nightmares that squelch parental involvement and make a mockery of the concept of local control.

Many experts believe that a critical ingredient in school unification or consolidation is the size of the district. In the pioneering days of Arizona, when the horse and buggy were the major source of transportation, geographic territory was the key determinant of school district size. Today, the discussion focuses on the number of students as a key factor. The debate surrounding the ideal school district size centers on the ideal student enrollment and the inefficiency of major centralization. The last fifty years have produced a raging debate regarding the ideal school district size. A central issue in this debate centers on the effective and efficient use of faculty and administrative resources and how to spread necessary fixed costs over a larger base to produce dollars to go directly into the classroom. Several states have proposed various solutions. However, Dr. William Duncombe, a researcher affiliated with the Center of Policy Research of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, developed a study with the most support in the state of New York. Dr. Duncombe’s study indicates several key factors:

the student population of the most cost efficient district is approximately 6000 students;

the student population of an extremely inefficient district is less than 500 students;

the student population of school districts with an enrollment of 2000 to 4000 students have a reasonable but slightly higher cost ratio;

the costs associated with school districts in excess of 6000 students continue to rise until the student population reaches 30,000 students even with economies of scale factors considered and implemented; and

student populations in excess of 30,000 students do not produce any additional cost savings related to economies of scale factors and issues related to increased costs and size make a district ungovernable and unmanageable.

Establishment of school districts to governable and manageable size of 6,000 children would entail changing existing geographic lines and altering attendance patterns that have historically existed for nearly a century. However, the effect on the individual child would be negligible and there would be minimal disruption to the classroom instruction. A solution for rural districts, where distance is a problem, is to provide a regional entity for administrative, management and non-instructional services. Improvements in technology and the speed of modern communications have eliminated the need for a centralized administration in every building. In fact, most school districts have a central core of administrators located in facilities not connected to individual school campuses. Currently, county school superintendents are statutorily authorized to provide administrative support for school districts.

School reform today emphasizes accountability and market-driven competition in schools. Reformers are concerned that districts have grown to non-responsive bureaucracies. The reform movement to provide competition for the school system would have substantial advantage if a district’s enrollment were limited to 6,000 students. Educational philosophy and community involvement would be established. Parental involvement should flourish as a result of the constant and personal attention provided to both parent and child.


Ideally, the student population of a district should range from a minimum of 6,000 students to a maximum of 30,000 students. Measures need to be enacted, statutorily, to provide for the automatic division of a district approaching the maximum number of students.

Rural and/or isolated schools that due to geographic factors fall below the minimum student count should have regional services provided for administration, instructional and non-instructional support services.


Governing Board Membership

The numerical composition of the local governing board is one of the major concerns of consolidation and/or unification of school districts in Arizona. There is a legitimate fear that governing board members would lose their elected positions if consolidation or unification were to occur. Originally, school districts in Arizona had a three-member governing board. Over the years, as the student enrollment increased, legislation was enacted that allowed districts the option of increasing their membership to five members. The functional differences between the three member and five member boards are minimal.

Parliamentary forum dictates that an odd number membership is essential but the exact number of members on the board is not sacrosanct. Membership on the local governing board could easily be increased to seven or nine depending on the student population but would never be less than three. Ideally, the governing board could increase to nine members serving staggered four-year terms. Optimally, public participation would increase substantially and major concerns could be addressed by subcommittee deliberations.

As the interface between the school, community and society, a properly functioning board should represent a wide range of opinions and attitudes. Diversity, an important tool for the local governing board, provides the necessary guidance reflecting the interests of the community in the establishment of policies directed to school administrators. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the elected governing board members to relate local concerns to appropriate regional, state and national officials. It is imperative in order to achieve the greatest amount of diversity. Consequently, governing boards need to have the largest number of participants in order to have the greatest amount of diversity.

Larger sized memberships on governing boards allow for development of the subcommittee process. Generally, subcommittees are limited in scope to such issues as budgets and personnel. However, larger boards would allow the major divisions to have subcommittees functioning as part of the deliberative process.

Compliance and curriculum issues, which have long been the parlance of the professional administrator, should operate under the guidance and direction of the governing board. Issues that in the past have been great leaps in faith for governing board members would be staffed and communicated to the community through the committee process.

Some individuals believe large governing bodies create the opportunity for creating greater dissent. However, governing boards should be viewed as a communications vehicle with the members being responsible for representing the district to the community. The more consensus the board gains with the community, the better school policies will reflect the feeling of the community the board seeks to serve. With improved communications and a better consensus, the district can move forward to achieve its goal of better educating its student population.


School governing boards should be increased from the average five members to nine, especially in large districts and those located in urban areas.


Role of the Governing Board

Today' s governing board is expected to be the vehicle advising the administration on the policy that governs school districts. The role of the governing board is to serve as the public’s advocates in the educational system.

Statutorily, the governing board has the legal responsibility for the functioning of a school district. The board member frequently relies on professional administrators to provide the guarantees that the business of educating children is being accomplished in an effective and efficient manner.

The oversight responsibilities of a board are key. Statutorily and legally, governing board members are the "last resort" in the appeal process. The utilization of the appeals and oversight processes allows the board to have a humane face and allows them the opportunity to modify issues brought before them on a case-by-case basis. When people feel alienated from an institution, they view the system as an enemy and a hostile relationship is developed. Successful schools are user-friendly with everyone knowing that people who interface with the institution will be treated with respect and understanding.

Additionally, oversight allows the board member to operate as a check and balance for local administrators. The responsibility of oversight should not be adversarial. The responsibility of oversight should serve as a check and balance by the community to ensure mutual goals are being addressed in a prompt and orderly fashion. Legislating mandatory oversight activities, while sometimes extremely difficult to accomplish, may in some cases prove a hardship for some board members. The process for oversight should be outlined and specified by rules of the Arizona Department of Education.

Constant focus should insure the board has the opportunity to interface with the community. School districts with multiple school sites should consider requiring buildings in the district to have its own advisory board. Again, community representation should reflect the individuals who use the services. Building committees, oversight boards, appeal boards and curriculum committees should be utilized to provide training opportunities for potential board members and greater community involvement in all activities.


The role of the governing board is increased to specify and emphasize oversight and appeal activities.


Role of the Superintendent

The role of the superintendent has continued to evolve from principal teacher to mega- administrator. However, a revolving door exists among superintendents and their exodus from district-to-district continues at an extremely high rate. All too often, the superintendent views their role as the educational leader rather than the educational facilitator. The line between policy and implementation of the policy becomes blurred and some superintendents wander into the board’s purview of attempting to influence public opinion; which clearly is the role of the governing board. As a result, many superintendents depart their positions and the district they were hired to serve early into their contract.

The amount of supervision in a system depends on the training and the understanding of the people in the system. Well trained teachers require very little supervision but considerable support. Unfortunately, teachers in the current system tend not to have the support and training in the latest techniques necessary to excel. Teachers entering the system today are focused to educate middle class college-bound students that comprise only about twenty-five percent of the student population. In reality, the chances a teacher will have an entire class of college-bound students are remote. Consequently, the average teacher requires re-training before they can function as a classroom leader. The superintendent must excel in the role of training teachers to meet the realities of the classroom. However, the pressures of federal and state regulations have forced the superintendent to be the master of federal compliance issues rather than focusing their efforts on classroom performance.

Many of the problems in classrooms today can be traced to a lack of staff training and professional development. Superintendents should be system facilitators. Principals should be the instructional leaders in their building. The superintendent must establish the expectations regarding instruction and student performance. The superintendent is responsible for providing the motivation as well as the standards for determining educational excellence. The superintendent's cadre of teachers delivers the educational product, provides the quality control determining the strength of the product being delivered.

Superintendents in our society today must focus on instructional delivery rather

than the day-to-day school operations of the local school district. As a result, external policy issues related to education must be delegated to the elected community representatives serving on the local governing board.


Develop a Superintendent’s Institute to re-educate administrators in the areas of staff development, classroom management and technology-assisted instruction.


Standards of Administration

Many individuals in our society believe there is an exorbitant amount of administrative costs and overhead in our educational system. School administration in a modern Arizona requires constant attention to federal and state mandates complex legal, business and community policy issues. It is challenging, under these circumstances, to provide adequate supervision for all the requirements. Eventually new personnel are added. Generally, positions have been added to central office administration as a reaction to problems or demand for a new program or information requirement imposed.

As with everything in education, a standard can be developed to correlate the number of administrative positions proportionately to the number of students. In order to determine the exact number of administrators needed for the number of students served, a comprehensive evaluation of function and performance is necessary. A Uniform Standard of Administration would allow for staffing patterns to be developed providing a ratio of administrators to students. Once developed, the standard would be a simple mathematical calculation to determine the number of administrators needed. Many staffing patterns existing in today’s model would be rendered superlative due to duplication of functions and clerical tasks that would become mechanized. The issues surrounding student attendance and the actual counting and reporting of children has become extremely cumbersome. In some schools this task has become a completely overwhelming challenge of time and manpower.

Determining a Standard of Administration would also provide the additional advantage of developing uniformity in staff development and service delivery among schools. Administrative efficiencies, as a result of the portability of positions and universal training, would create substantial cost savings for the system.


The education system needs to develop a Standard of Administration based on a per child ratio identifying standards for each school and district to achieve. A realization of current staffing patterns will guarantee cost effectiveness and efficient administrative service delivery.


School District Names

In Arizona, as individuals petitioned for the creation of new school districts, the county Board of Supervisors assigned them names. As a result, school districts were named after the community area of interest. The districts were assigned a number designated by the order in which they applied for district status. The number is used as the legal identification for recognizing the district today.

Consequently, the public confusion is rampant when adding the "community of interest" name to the district in addition to the legal number. Frequently, numerous districts serve the same municipality. School districts named after ranchers, business leaders or local geographic phenomena have no identity or relationship to new residents.

Also, over the years, stigmas have developed in some districts that make them controversial with new residents to the community. Changing the identification of districts would remove labels and allow the opportunity for a fresh start.

Current names for districts would be meaningless when consolidating or unifying a local school district. New names would eliminate the confusion of old and new. A more prudent path would be to adopt a system that would legally identify the school and provide for a distinction on the basis of the county in which the district resides. Currently there are no districts that cross county lines.

The need for local control would not be diminished nor would local control be affected by the name of the district. Individuals who were interested in their local district would still understand that the district represents them and their attitudes. The high schools and the elementary schools would not be affected by any change in district designation unless the local voters decided to the contrary.

As a result, the local identification would take place at the high school level rather than at the district. Students would still identify with their local school, as is the current situation, but would not have an additional district designation other than a county number.


All school districts use their county and school district number as their legal designation. (For example:

Phoenix Elementary School District would become Maricopa District 1;

Riverside would become Maricopa District 2; and

Tempe Elementary would be Maricopa District 3, etc.)


Centralization of Non-Academic Functions

A significant, I repeat significant, amount of a school district’s administrative costs are derived from the provision of non-instructional support services. Centralization of services such as personnel, transportation, curriculum development, building maintenance, food services, facilities planning, technology and many others can be provided in a much more efficient manner. A system that would allow for the centralized purchase by districts of these functions would provide the efficiency and effectiveness of having outsourced activities.

The cost effectiveness of outsourcing functions is demonstrated by some districts, now, based on the result of competition on pricing and the savings generated when using economies of scale. Most individuals, especially management, understand the more that is purchased, the cheaper per unit cost.

The development of Regional Education Service Agencies (RESA) would guarantee schools, particularly rural schools, the opportunity to contract for services. These RESA’s should be established in all counties having 6,000 or more school age children. The county school superintendent, serving as the non-instructional service provider, would host services on a regional level for any school in their area and would be able to contract with schools throughout the state. Those counties with less than 6,000 students could be given the option of sustaining a local RESA in their community, joining an adjacent county in the development of a regional center or contracting with an outside provider of their choice.

The goal would be to allow local communities the flexibility to contract with public or private vendors to provide non-instructional services. The school district’s responsibility would be to concentrate on the delivery of educational services. Instances in which a private vendor was unavailable, the district could use the resources of other county RESA’s guaranteeing a minimum level of competition statewide.


County school superintendents should develop Regional Educational Service Agencies to provide for the non-instructional support of local school districts.


School Administrative Contracting Authority

The concept of contracting for services is fairly limited among Arizona school districts. Superintendents’ concerns center on the commitment and loyalty of individuals employed by the system. School governing boards hire a superintendent who serves at the wishes of the governing board and as a result they demand a relationship of commitment and loyalty. Sometimes, in the trustee’s political process, there are unrealistic expectations of the superintendent. As a result, fidelity and loyalty are the key issues in the evaluation of job performance rather than the ability to manage and direct the school system. Was that tactful? Board members need to realize the professional managers they have hired need appropriate direction for tasks to be achieved, not provincial loyalty.

Consequently, it should be possible for a superintendent to manage multiple districts until the number of students reaches a size that it would require the district to be split. Likewise, superintendents have to learn they have more control over vendors than employees and the number of vendors on contracts can be easily adjusted. Permanent status employees provide much less flexibility to the business operations because vendors are there only when needed rather than year round.

Professional training for school administrators consists mostly of on-the-job training. As a result, good school systems with effective management practices in place produce good administrators. Unfortunately, some schools that do not have effective management practices in place frequently produce individuals that have poor habits. Once these bad habits exist, it is difficult, if not impossible, to correct them. School administration tends to emulate the last administrator that supervised an individual rather than providing new and innovative approaches to the program.

Contracting for service is the type of reform that seems to be difficult to understand and utilize in Arizona education. Becoming comfortable with this new practice will require significant retraining of many administrators. Even with this disadvantage, the opportunity to add competition to the school system is significantly important enough to establish the format to encourage the practice.

Cost control is much easier if the parts of the system are broken into small pieces. Bifurcation will allow administrators to become aware of the exact makeup of each function. Too often, individual administrators look at the universal rather than the component parts. As a result, a lack of understanding exists as to the exact nature of the delivery of the unit of service or the components of each unit of service. There is a high degree of probability that some of the components may be redundant or unnecessary.


Each school district should be required to provide a cost/benefit analysis regarding the outsourcing of all non-instructional functions affecting the school district. This will require the district administrator to develop and review activities into component groupings for cost purposes and will determine whether it is more cost effective to contract for services or provide those services internally.


District Configuration

Currently in Arizona there are three configurations for school districts: elementary, union and unified. Elementary districts provide educational services for students in kindergarten through eighth grade.

My view, school districts should be categorized as rural unified or independent unified. Student counts should define districts rather than the grade levels they serve. ALL school districts should be unified and offer classes for students attending kindergarten through twelfth grade, including the potential to offer post-secondary credits. Rural districts with less than 500 students requiring special service support would automatically qualify for assistance from the county school superintendents office in instructional and non-instructional areas while maintaining their unified status. Instructional services that districts would rely on the county offices for could include technology and distance learning. The non-instructional support services would include all aspects of finance, personnel and staff development. The technical expertise necessary to provide these services is currently cost-prohibitive in most cases and will be even more expensive in the future unless centralized.

Unified school districts provide continuity in the educational and instructional delivery methods. Consortiums provided by the county superintendent’s office or private vendors could offer cost savings and support for their districts.

Technology is having a significant impact on our educational system today. Whether in the classroom or the business office, it is by far the most expensive component. Each and every child needs to not only know the "3 R’s", but they need to know how to utilize technology in order to prosper in future society. Centralizing this one function makes the most sense and could save thousands of tax dollars.

Currently, districts are also classified according to size. Schools falling in these categories are considered one of the following: small and rural (600 students or less) and rural isolated (125 students or less). Small and rural districts receive an allocation of funds in addition to their local taxes and student average daily membership (ADM) generated revenues. These types of districts must have a vote of the taxpayers in their district to levy their local taxes. On the other hand, rural and isolated schools have the same funding sources and qualify for the same identical funding categories as the small and rural schools. However, taxpayers residing in rural and isolated districts DO NOT have the opportunity to vote on the levies being assessed by the local school board.

Many districts in Arizona have taken advantage of the "pilot" program established in 1987 allowing school districts to print their own checks and monitor their finances. These districts initially had to have a student population in excess of 10,000. Currently, in order to participate in the "pilot program" a district’s student population must be in excess of 4,000 students. Fiscal management services are provided to all districts throughout Arizona by the county school superintendent’s offices FREE OF CHARGE. School districts could save their taxpayers millions of dollars in technology hardware and manpower costs by allowing their respective county superintendents to provide this service to their district.


All school districts throughout the State of Arizona should be unified and provide educational services to all children in grades kindergarten through twelve.

School districts need to be categorized according to their student count as rural unified or independent unified. School districts with a student count of less than 500 would be categorized as rural unified and those with more than 6,000 would be considered independent unified.

The State of Arizona needs to eliminate the statutory budgetary exemptions for school districts of less than 125 students. Provisions for taxpayer approval of all bond and override issues regardless of district size need to be implemented.

Current "pilot districts" should be required to use the fiscal management services the county superintendent’s office provides free of charge.


Local Control

Local control is always at the forefront of any discussion regarding the consolidation or unification of school districts. This one issue is by far the biggest stumbling block to the structural change necessary to making our educational system more efficient. In the past, rural communities have translated consolidation or unification of a school district into a loss of identity. Urban communities of interest dissipate once a district has multiple high schools and, as a result, the neighborhood shopping center rather than the school expresses its new identity of the neighborhood. Chambers of Commerce, now focusing their efforts on community identity, have found the local shopping center as the entity most people identify with more than any other single political subdivision.

Although some Phoenix suburban communities are the size of major cities, they still have the identification belonging to the greater Phoenix metropolitan area. Generally, it is realized that school district configurations have little, if any, impact on the urban "community of interest".

Governing boards are a reflection of special interest groups or individuals with a specific agenda impacting the political process rather than your next-door neighbor. In many instances their agendas may include new administrative leadership for the district, advocating for special needs children or protecting friends who may work in the district. This phenomenon is particularly true in urban areas. Rapid growth and high mobility rates within the community frequently result in anonymity for local school board members. Research demonstrates that particularly in the southern United States where centralization was encouraged, school boards became non-responsive because the district became too large and therefore unmanageable. In the southern states, test scores plummeted and educational quality declined when districts became excessively large and local influence diluted.

Local control is essential to education. However, in order to be effective, it must be administered at the local individual school site. A current problem for larger districts is getting the new resident involved. Communities, particularly in the western United States, have increasing mobility problems forcing them to lean heavily on long-time residents for their stability. Constant efforts in planning, consensus building and outreach efforts will be difficult and the savvy administrator will focus on these areas if parental involvement in schools is deemed a worthwhile commodity.

Recommendation Maintaining public support for public education requires that individual communities become the catalysts for improving the quality of their schools. The ideal school governing board would serve the neighborhood school in their attempt to interface with the local community. A new Arizona school organization scheme would balance the local controls, efficiency requirements and drive all the investment possible to the school site for the benefit of teaching and learning.

"A child is a person who is going to carry-on what you have started.

He or she is going to sit where you are sitting,

And when you are gone attend to those things, which you think are important.

You may adopt all the policies you please,

But how they are carried out depends on him.

He will assume control of your cities, states and nations.

He is going to move in and take over your faith organizations,

schools, universities and corporations…

The fate of humanity is in his or her hands!"


Thank you for considering these concepts and this important improvement to Arizona’s education future. I really believe it is work worth doing and I trust you do also.

Martin L. Shultz