Touchy issue of merging school districts getting another look

Associated Press
Tuesday, November 15, 2005
Associated Press

A new 13-member state commission is taking on the task of studying whether dozens of elementary and high school districts across Arizona should be combined into unified districts.

It's an issue that's proved too hot to handle before, but supporters hope changes from previous merger proposals may make any eventual unification recommendations more palatable to voters and local officials.

Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, Republican legislative leaders and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, a Republican, appointed the School District Redistricting Commission under a law created last spring.

Along with its 108 unified school districts, Arizona has 15 high school districts and 95 elementary districts, including dozens of mostly rural districts with fewer than 200 students but also large urban districts with as many as 70,000.

Supporters contend that combining districts could cut costs and improve academic achievement by eliminating curriculum disconnects, but previous attempts to encourage or mandate district mergers ran into trouble, largely over concerns about loss of local control.

The Legislature passed a school district consolidation law in 1974 but repealed it the next year amid opposition from local districts.

In 1997, legislation to ask voters to authorize creation of a district-consolidation commission appeared to be gaining steam before a quiet lobbying campaign by the Arizona School Boards Association sunk it during a Senate vote.

And a study commission formed by the Legislature in 2002 met three times that year and next without producing any recommendations.

The school boards group again opposed the 2005 legislation as an intrusion on local control, but legislative supporters made key concessions that enabled the latest version to become law.

The concessions included limiting the commission to considering mergers of elementary and high school districts - but not consolidations of existing unified districts - and requiring that unifications receive voter approval to take effect.

Despite that, the current effort likely will be difficult and contentious, said commission member Jay Blanchard, a university professor and Democratic former state senator appointed to the commission.

"There's a history to this," Blanchard said. "We all fall back to the old refrain that everybody supports unification, except (for) their school district."

The commission is supposed to present a plan with unification recommendations by Dec. 31, 2007, after studying the pros and cons and taking public testimony.

"It's going to be a long two years," said school finance expert Michael Hunter, vice president of the business-backed Arizona Tax Research Association and a member of the commission.

Places where elementary and high school districts overlap include Phoenix, Buckeye, Glendale, Tempe, Tolleson, Bullhead City, Casa Grande, Eloy, Yuma, the Verde Valley and rural areas of Santa Cruz, Yavapai, La Paz and Yuma counties.

The biggest possible unification would involve Phoenix Union High School District and its 13 "feeder" elementary districts. Together, they have approximately 110,000 students - nearly as many as the state's two biggest districts, Mesa and Tucson Unified, combined.

However, the commission could recommend that Phoenix Union and its feeders be combined into several unified districts or not changed at all, and Hunter and other commission members said they're starting with a clean slate statewide.

For commission member Kent Scribner, that means determining what's best for students.

"I am absolutely going into it with an open mind," said Scribner, who is superintendent of one of Phoenix Union's feeder districts, 9,000-student Isaac Elementary. "We must look at the data."