Once again, Legislature looks at consolidating school districts - East Valley Tribune: Arizona

Once again, Legislature looks at consolidating school districts

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Posted: Tuesday, August 30, 2011 8:36 pm | Updated: 3:56 pm, Thu Sep 1, 2011.

If lawmakers decide to revisit the issue of combining school districts, they should provide a way to pay for consultants to evaluate the costs and benefits, a superintendent told a legislative study committee Tuesday.

"If you want high speed, high quality, you are going to have to pay high price," said Roger Freeman, head of the Littleton Elementary School District in the West Valley.

Freeman suggested that the state, county or local governments finance studies to determine whether combining a group of districts is viable. The studies could be done either by school districts willing to do so or by counties or local governments, he said.

Financially strapped districts don't have enough money to finance their own studies, he said.

"Now we are cutting revenues and we have to make decisions on how we cut," Freeman said.

In 2008, when voters decided on proposals to combine 76 elementary and high school districts into 27 unified districts, a plan involving Freeman's district was one of just four that passed. However, judges later overturned that vote and two others.

The study committee, created by legislation authored authored by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, is tasked with studying options for school district unification and consolidation. Its 16 members, including lawmakers, superintendents and other stakeholders, have until the end of the year to submit recommendations to the governor and legislative leaders.

Barbara U'Ren, superintendent of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District, told the committee that her district would have benefited from the help of a consultant when it discussed unifying with the Mingus Union High School District, but she said money is tight in a small district such as hers. In 2010, the district's governing board voted to discontinue that effort.

Rep. Doris Goodale, R-Kingman, co-chair of the committee and chairwoman of the House Education Committee, said the Legislature wouldn't be likely to give school districts money to help.

"I don't know if it would be very successful to talk about a pot of money to help school districts unify," she said in an interview.

Goodale said the biggest financial obstacle to combining school districts is the difference in salaries between elementary and high school teachers.

"I don't see the state in a position for the next few years of having discretionary money to help districts financially unify," she said.

Fillmore, whose legislation created the committee, said combining districts could save a lot of money and increase teachers' salaries.

"We don't want to change the schools," he said. "We want to change many layers of administrative duplications and redundancy above it."

Bastien Insaurralde is a reporter for Cronkite News Service

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