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School district consolidation, unification committee holds first meeting

Skeptics and opponents of the massive 2008 school district unification and consolidation push are voicing a willingness to give the issue another chance, but not without certain conditions.

The Joint Legislative Study Committee on School District Unification and Consolidation held its first meeting today and laid out a five-month timetable for drafting a set of recommendations. The committee, which is co-chaired by Sen. Rich Crandall and Rep. Doris Goodale, the chairs of their respective education committees, includes 10 school officials from across the state.

Jeffery Crandall, a member of the Tombstone Unified School District governing board, said attitudes toward unification and consolidation have changed since 2008 due to the economic crisis, which has forced schools to cut back and seek new ways to save money.

“There is a new reality when it comes to school finance,” he said. “Under this new reality, people are a little more serious.”

Arizona has 227 school districts, some have which only have about two dozen students. Considering how deeply K-12 education budgets have been cut in the past several years, Rich Crandall said it is imperative that districts find new ways to cut costs.

Some of the school officials on the committee said they were opposed to the 2008 push, but are open to a unification and consolidation process that addresses their concerns over state mandates and local control.

Toni Badone, superintendent of the Yuma Union High School District, said she opposed the 2008 plan because “it felt forced” and didn’t collaborate with her district. But she said unification and consolidation have advantages, such as standardizing curriculum and textbooks. She said she could support a plan that streamlined the process to make it easier for districts that wanted to merge.

“I think Representative (John) Fillmore’s idea was let’s look at this again in terms of what is good about it and keep it and not force it on people,” Badone said, referring to Fillmore’s HB2219, which created the committee. “If this is good for kids in the classroom, how can we do it? If it’s not good for kids in the classroom, then what can we do differently to save money and get the dollars into the classroom?”

Several committee members emphasized that the committee’s recommendations shouldn’t include any mandates that force districts to unify or consolidate against their will, and should retain as much local control as possible.

Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter noted that districts already have the ability to unify or consolidate. They key to a successful plan, he said, may be to incentivize the changes. Carter said the Legislature should create incentives and eliminate “statutory roadblocks” to make it easier for districts to consolidate if they want to.

“I think that there are some other options that we might be able to apply through legislation that would even make it more palatable,” he said. “What I would hope would emerge are options so favorable to districts that it becomes a win-win-win, (so) they want to buy into that.”

Some of those incentives will likely have to be financial. Fillmore said some unification or consolidation efforts could cost several million dollars.

Some members also said the committee’s final recommendations shouldn’t exclusively focus on unification and consolidation. For example, Carter suggested making it easier for districts to share resources and enter into intergovernmental agreements, especially in rural areas.

“You can keep five districts with five governing boards … and you can consolidate the services,” Carter said. “We can do that outside of unification and consolidation.”

Rich Crandall and Fillmore said the committee’s final reports would include several recommendations for school districts and for the Legislature, and would likely include proposals for the unification and consolidation alternatives that some members urged.

“What I see the final product as being is options A, B, C and D, the advantages and disadvantages of each option, and then a recommendation to the Legislature to say, ‘Let’s give an incentive for option A. Let’s give an incentive for option B.’ At the same time, let’s make sure there’s no barriers in the way,” said Crandall, R-Mesa.

There are plenty of sticking points to drafting the recommendations. Members said unification and consolidation proposals could get hung up on local opposition to closing schools, determining the fate of local property taxes and overrides, and standardizing salary schedules for merged schools.

Sen. Steve Smith also said the Arizona Education Association, which opposed the 2008 proposals, must be involved at some level. Teachers’ jobs would be “collateral damage” in any unification or consolidation proposal, he said, and the AEA has been a “historic barrier” to such proposals. The Arizona School Boards Association also opposed the 2008 plan.

“Nobody wants to lose their jobs,” said Smith, R-Maricopa.

And other roadblocks could pop up on the committee. Goodale, R-Kingman, said she expects some committee members who are open to the idea now will oppose some of the proposals once they’re actually on paper. That happened with the 2005-2008 committee that pushed the last unification and consolidation effort.

“People were okay until they realized there’s actually something to this change, they’re really serious about this change. Then it kind of changes the perspective,” she said. “I don’t know that we can get consensus in five short meetings with this very dynamic group that we have.”

Wednesday’s meeting was the first of five monthly meetings. Crandall said the second meeting will focus exclusively on unification and consolidation proposals, while the third will focus on some of the cost-saving alternatives that committee members proposed. The fourth meeting will be for the committee to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of the various proposals, and start to put some of them in writing, and the fifth meeting will be for finalizing the recommendations.

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