Even the critics agree the idea sounds great: Slash bureaucracy by merging some of the state’s countless school districts. That should free up more money to spend on classrooms and improve test scores by streamlining the educational system.
But after studying the idea in Tempe for more than six months, the idea has failed to gain momentum among the people who lead three districts.
The trio of school boards seem poised to officially oppose redistricting in formal votes that are planned in the next month or two.
“I don’t see the benefit to the kids and I see possible harm in not being able to be flexible and to move rapidly,” said Jim Lemmon, a member of the Tempe Elementary School District.
Officials have until Sept. 15 to decide whether to endorse or reject specific consolidation plans developed by the state School District Redistricting Commission.
But ultimately, voters will decide whether to merge districts, as the commission’s statewide plan will go on the November 2008 ballot.
For the Tempe area, the commission has two competing ideas under consideration.
One would create a single district made up of the three — the Tempe elementary district, the Tempe Union High School District and the Kyrene Elementary School District. The alternative would create two kindergarten through 12th-grade districts, split along Guadalupe Road.
The split district idea has been especially unpopular because many don’t want Tempe and the town of Guadalupe split in two districts.
“I don’t think that’s good for kids,” said Robin Arredondo-Savage, a board member of the Tempe Union High School District.
She stressed that she hasn’t taken a formal position yet. That district plans to do so Aug. 11.
Many school board members oppose the single district because they say the three districts are too different to become one. They have different pay scales, different computer brands for students and different computer systems to run the districts.
The 2005 legislation that created the redistricting commission didn’t include any funds to ease the transition for schools. That’s a deal killer for Sue Knudson, president of the Kyrene board.
She figures the transition would require $8 million just to adjust salaries. However, she added that she hasn’t calculated other costs involved with creating new districts.
“There’s no funding for any of it,” Knudson said. “I don’t see how we could do it in the end without taking things away from the kids.”
But one group has emerged in support of forming a single district. A self-appointed group of about 50 met this summer to identify what they thought was the best plan, said Onnie Shekerjian, a former school board member now on the Tempe City Council. She joined the group called Parent Unification Committee.
A single, K-12 district would boost the incentive for the district to ensure students perform better at earlier grade levels, Shekerjian said. Now, a K-8 district can pass off problem kids to a different high school district without worry.
“When I talk to high school teachers, that’s their greatest complaint,” Shekerjian said.
Lemmon agreed that can be a problem, but he said teachers make the same complaints about middle school preparation, even in K-12 districts.
Lemmon said it makes sense to merge districts that are tiny or dysfunctional, but he figures a single district for Tempe could prove difficult to manage. It would include Ahwatukee Foothills, virtually all of Tempe, part of Chandler and a sliver of the Gila River Indian Community. This larger district would need more middle managers to deal with its size. And it would be more difficult for board members to serve the largely different socioeconomic groups that make up today’s two elementary districts, he said.
Lemmon recalled a recent meeting with top custodians at the district’s 25 schools and tried to imagine doing that in an organization with 65 schools.
“Man, if I had to deal with 65 leading custodians and a staff of hundreds making these decisions, it would be really dicey,” Lemmon said.
The redistricting commissioner who represents Tempe acknowledges the idea is controversial. Educators probably resist the idea because their daily duties are already daunting enough, said Jay Blanchard, an Arizona State University professor and former lawmaker.
Blanchard also believes the public doesn’t understand the proposals or know much about the process. “You would have thought we had violated some state law,” Blanchard said. “The folks were up in arms, saying the plans offered were cast in stone, when in fact, the plans were merely a starting point for a discussion.”
The commission will review the positions of school boards in September, study the issue through the fall and finalize a ballot measure by Dec. 31. It can recommend no change.