Arizona lawmakers are moving to require a public vote in the state’s largest school districts to determine whether they should be split up.
But what happens after that hasn’t quite been worked out yet.
The measure, HB 2546, is being advanced by Rep. Rachel Jones. The first-term Republican lawmaker who lives on the far east side of Tucson said many of her constituents are unhappy with the decisions being made by the five-member governing board of the Tucson Unified School District.
She said they would be happier with a smaller district, which would presumably give them a greater voice and a board elected more from their own area versus the nearly 229 square miles that stretches from the edge of the San Xavier Indian Reservation through downtown, north of the Rillito River and east to Houghton Road.
But Jones’ displeasure with TUSD and her desire to force a vote to split it also would have a spillover effect: In crafting the measure to apply to districts of more than 35,000 students it also would mandate the same kind of vote in Mesa, which is even larger.
That’s just fine with Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa.
“It is a massive beast of a school district,” he said when the measure was being debated in the House Committee on Municipal Oversight and Elections. Heap said the district’s racial and economic diversity makes it too large to ensure that parents get their voices heard.
As crafted, HB 2546 also would force an election in the Chandler Unified School District. And student growth in the Peoria, Gilbert and Deer Valley districts also could put them over that 35,000 figure and force that same mandated election.
Despite that, all the House Republicans agreed with what Jones wants to do, voting this past week (eds: March 1) in favor of the mandated election. All Democrats were opposed.
Arizona law already allows an election to split a school district to be called if 10% of the residents of an area proposing to form a new district submit petitions. A similar margin is required from the area that would remain.
Jones, however, said that option isn’t enough.
“This came from concerned parents, concerned constituents, that that process is almost impossible to get the desired outcome,” she said during House floor debate. And that desired outcome, said Jones, is a smaller district for her constituents — and one where board members would answer to those constituents.
“There are parents in schools … over on the east side of Tucson that are not in agreement with some of the decisions being made by the five-person board,” she said.
“What this does is it gives power back to the parents to say, ‘Yes, we would like to be able to potentially choose if we want to split up the district or not,”’ Jones continued. “This does give the power to the parents to say, ‘You know, this isn’t working.”’
And Jones said that breaking up the district will empower not just parents but also the teachers and principals at individual schools.
Rep. Stephanie Stahl-Hamilton, D-Tucson, questioned the finances of all this. She noted the move is coming as lawmakers debate the amount of money being spent on education, especially what is being earmarked for administration.
“Once we start dividing districts, we’re talking about school superintendents and all of the administrative staff that comes with establishing a new district,” she said.
“We would be funneling money away from the classroom, putting it into the establishment of new districts and new administration,” Stahl-Hamilton said. “I think in the long run it would cost the state a lot more money.”
Jones said that isn’t necessarily true.
“We have a superintendent that makes a lot of money,” she said, a figure she pegged at about $500,000 a year.
But the latest three-year contract approved by the school board for Gabriel Trujillo actually puts his salary at $230,000, a 14% increase from his prior base pay, with a tax-deferred annuity of $15,000 a year and eligibility for $5,000 in performance-based pay each year.
Jones also said that Trujillo has “a lot of assistant superintendents who make pretty good salaries.”
“I believe if the parents were to split the district into, say, two or three more districts, that it would be a wash, if not a money savings,” she said.
Jones also said Tucson “spends more money than I think everybody in the state.”
What figures from the Auditor General’s Office show is that TUSD spent $6,509 per student last school year on instruction, compared with the statewide average of $5,846. But administrative costs were $62 less per student than the statewide average.
She also questioned the district’s academic performance.
That same report from the Auditor General found that just 20% of students passed state math assessments, compared with 33% statewide. The district also lagged in assessments for science and English language arts.
One thing missing from HB 2546 as it was approved by the House are details of exactly how the breakup process would work.
What is clear at this point is that a vote would be required in Tucson, Mesa and Chandler schools, with residents deciding whether two — or three — is better than one.
But there is nothing at this point to say that residents would get maps to show exactly where the new lines would be drawn, something that would be required in an election sought by residents. What also is missing is how assets like school buses would be divided and how to deal with existing bond debt.
Jones told Capitol Media Services that much of that would be worked out in the Senate where the measure now heads. But she declined to provide specifics.
This isn’t the first time lawmakers have debated the question of what has been a perennial question at the Capitol of what is the ideal size of a school district.
As recently as 2019 lawmakers debated a measure moving in the opposite direction by forcing consolidation of the more than 200 school districts in the state as a method of saving money by avoiding duplication.
The measure failed amid opposition from people who wanted to keep things the way they were.
That question of how big is too big isn’t just being considered in the context of school districts.
There is an effort at the Capitol to split Maricopa County into four separate counties.
There is a big difference, though: SB 1137, which was given preliminary approved this past week by the Senate, mandates the breakup, with no option for voters in the county to decide otherwise.
That election would have to state the new boundaries of each district, the number of students as well as the amount of assessed property, the last point designed to ensure there is a sufficient tax base to support each of the new districts.