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Senate to consider school district consolidation proposal

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Saying too much money is wasted on duplication, state lawmakers took the first steps April 2 to force consolidation of the more than 200 school districts in the state.

And the combinations could occur without voter approval.

The proposal by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, would eliminate any separate elementary and high school districts that now exist. Instead, they automatically would become unified districts no later than July 1, 2024.

But HB 2139, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, does not stop there.

It would require every school board in the state to annually determine how much money could be saved by not just unification but also with consolidation with other adjacent districts.

In fact, it spells out that in the smaller population counties, those with just three supervisors, there could be no more than three school districts. Most counties with five supervisors could have up to seven districts while Maricopa County could have no more than 20.

Fillmore’s bill provides a carrot for governing boards that can come up with their own consolidation plans without taking it to voters, allowing them to spend more money than would otherwise be allowed for up to three years.

But balking appears not to be an option.

HB 2139 says if the governing boards don’t come up with a plan by June 30, 2022 to unify and consolidate, then the county school superintendent is directed to come up with a plan. And it spells out that any such plan “shall be executed without an election.”

The issue, Fillmore said, comes down to dollars and cents.

“When people have said to me that schools have more money, I’ve always had the quick comeback (that) they have enough money,” he said. “What we need to do is have them spend it a little bit more wisely.”

Fillmore, who is a business owner, said it comes down to running the state education system more like that.

“If we did some consolidation, got rid of the redundancy, duplication and excess waste in the districts, we could have the opportunity to save … I believe hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. In fact, he prepared his own study pegging the total savings at $506 million out of about $7.8 billion now spent each year in state and local funds for operation and maintenance.

Fillmore said this isn’t just a way of cutting state spending, saying his legislation would allocate 25 percent of whatever is saved for teacher salaries.

What is bothering some of the foes – and even some of the supporters – is the mandate.

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, said voters in his area have made decisions about how they want their schools organized. He said there are some unified school districts and a high school district and several elementary districts, with voters in some areas preferring smaller districts versus huge unified districts.

“I would be concerned about circumventing voters and circumventing the taxpayers when they’ve clearly made decisions of whether they want to be unified or not unified,” Bowie said.

Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she has no problem with the idea of having school boards study the benefits of consolidation. But Carter, who agreed to support the measure said she won’t vote for it when it gets to the floor if the mandates remain.

Fillmore said that mandate is only partly true.

“In my bill, I’ve given them the opportunity to go out for a vote if they want to,” he said, with the financial reward of consolidation and unification without going through that process.

But Fillmore said that it’s going to take more than a simple nudge to get the desired results.

He pointed out there already are opportunities for school districts to unify and consolidate. And there even are some financial incentives for those who pursue that path.

“But they don’t,” he said.

Efforts to force the issue have been discussed for more than a decade.

In 2001, for example, a Senate panel approved a measure creating an independent commission empowered to consolidate the more than 200 school districts in the state to no more than 90. Those that refused would be denied state aid.

It died after officials from some smaller districts argued against the presumption that small is bad and wasteful.

Five years later a special School District Redistricting Commission created by the Legislature proposed at least forcing a vote in each district on consolidation. But that failed to produce the desired results.

But Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said it is worth pursuing what Fillmore is proposing.

He said there is little evidence that the state – and the students – are better served with more than 200 districts, citing the experience in Utah which has half as many districts, spends less per student and still has higher test scores.

Fillmore said if the consolidation takes place it will be a net political benefit.

“After my bill is done and these schools are consolidated and they’ve saved that money, that argument can never be used by people like me as a Republican that the schools have too much money because the schools will have made the adjustments necessary,” he said.

The measure now goes to the full Senate where it faces an uncertain future.

By the numbers:

Elementary school districts — 97 with 434 schools

High school districts — 15 with 70 schools

Unified districts — 95 with 707 elementary schools, 143 high schools and 73 combined schools

Accommodation districts — 8 with 5 elementary schools, 9 high schools and 7 combined schools

– Source: Arizona Department of Education

2 comments

  1. Once again, as in all Arizona Legislator proposed ways that we can ‘help ourselves,’ there is much more to this than simple efficiencies in consolidation. Consider, and we KNOW the Legislator’s and Special Interests have, this will make it easy to control an Education System to be able to push through religious, political and other protocol that will benefit the churches, bible humpers and other Arizona Lunatic Fringe.
    The ‘Flat Earther’s,’ Creationists, and those that abhor Sex Education will find it easy to push their dumbed down focus.

  2. This is certainly interesting and the comment from Mr Lowen is just dumb. I can see where this might work. I live in Cochise County the smaller schools do a much better job of educating than the couple of larger districts. Mainly because of the Teachers Union is very strong in Sierra Vista PS. If you could crush that strangle hold the Union has, Sierra Vista might end up being a good district. Durning the strike Sierra Vista was the only District to walk out in the entire County. All the other schools understood their importance and stayed open.
    Fewer school boards, 3 superintendents total, stop the practice of bussing kids from one district to another. Tombstone currently run busses to Sierra Vista and Benson for kids. Tombstone is a good good school but if t were consumed into a larger district would it loose it ability to educated the same way.
    Like I said this is interesting. Questions still need to be answered but It might just work.

    Mr Lowen, perhaps you should look at some of the **** teachers we tolerate in our schools today. I know of at least 20 good teachers that have left the profession because of the stupid antics of the district. Let’s not forget that teaches are there to teach reading, writhing, arrhythmic and history not politics.

    Wayne Gregan

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