Two-and-a-half years after Arizona voters rejected nearly all proposals to combine 76 elementary and high school districts around Arizona into 27 unified districts, state legislators are starting the steps to put the issue back in front of voters.
Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, is proposing a committee that would study unification and present potential legislation to top state politicians before next year. He said unification could help cut costs, raise teacher salaries and improve the quality of education.
“I see a unique opportunity in these rough, tough times for us to do some needed consolidation, to get some more money to teachers, to get some more money into the classroom (and) to enable the schools to be able to operate more efficiently,” Fillmore said, adding that the more than 200 school districts around Arizona have a large number of mid-level administrators.
The idea of consolidating districts isn’t new, but Fillmore said his bill would tackle it in a way that better represents the interests of small and large communities.
“I have a vision that we’re going to bring together stakeholders — principals, teachers, superintendents, big counties, small counties, the people who have the vested interest in this, together — that have an understanding that in our tight economic climate that this might be a benefit to them,” he said.
In 2007, a commission created by the Legislature recommended the unification plan to then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, but voters approved just four of 27 plans outright. Three later failed after judges ruled with a strict interpretation of the wording in the original bill about the number of votes needed to pass the measures.
The 16-member committee created by Fillmore’s bill, HB 2219, wouldn’t take issues directly to the ballot but instead would present potential legislation calling for unification to the governor, Senate president, speaker of the House and secretary of state by the end of the year.
The bill won House approval last month and was headed to the Senate floor.
The Arizona School Boards Association, which in the past has opposed unification, is neutral on Fillmore’s bill, said Janice Palmer, director of governmental relations.
“We are OK with embarking on a study committee to look at various incentives and other ways of helping districts that want to locally unify or consolidate … but we are adamantly opposed to mandating unification,” she said.
When nearly all proposals failed in 2008, it became clear that people want to discuss the issue but that unification has to work at the local level, Palmer said.
Tim Carter, the Yavapai County school superintendent, said that while he doesn’t have an issue with a group studying unification the previous commission made a mistake by failing to listen to communities, which then responded by voting down nearly every proposal.
“In the local communities of Arizona, I feel that voters and certainly governing board members feel like they are having their voice minimized by the state continually putting the issue in front of them,” he said.
Carter said he supports Fillmore’s plans to build the committee with many county and district representatives.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said though he supports unification he voted against the measure on the House floor because there isn’t public support. He said it’s a good standard to wait at least five years before reintroducing a measure that voters rejected.
“Until there’s a change in the public, I don’t think there’s a purpose to spending government monies advancing something people don’t want,” he said.
Martin Shultz, who chaired the School District Redistricting Commission in 2008, said spending money on so many districts isn’t efficient, adding that current district organization is outdated.
“The issues like how to best organize to spend money most effectively, how to drive more money into the classroom – we’re not getting it done with this organization,” he said. “Every year that we don’t improve the dollars that go into the classroom, pay our teachers more money and influence kids in a positive way … we’re sacrificing our kids on the altar of the school board association wanting to keep the status quo. What a mistake.”