One sure-fire way to muddy the waters of an issue that common folks can understand is to allow lawyers and politicians to get involved.
Certainly, that’s been the case with the drive to merge school districts in the Upper Verde Valley.
Even the terms we use to describe such a merger can be confusing, thanks to the lawyers and politicians who come up with the language to describe turning two or three school districts into one.
In the late 1990s, we used the word consolidation to describe the proposed merging of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek, Clarkdale-Jerome and Mingus Union school districts. Last year when we dropped Clarkdale-Jerome from the formula, the legal nomenclature changed from consolidation to unification.
Not only that, the lawyers and politicians also changed something else that common folk find easy to understand: the ability to decide an issue by voting on it. When it was consolidation, we voted on it. And, we soundly voted it down. Like it or not — I sure don’t — it’s hard to argue with a conclusive vote from the electorate.
But then with a little grassroots lobbying influence, the lawyers and politicians got involved again. They changed the law. No longer could we vote on the issue. Besides, it’s not consolidation any more. It’s unification. In other words, when you try to merge three school districts into one, you let the voters decide the issue. When you try to merge two into one, you bypass the voters and let the two elected school boards make the decision.
Confused? Don’t worry. The lawyers and politicians understand.
Ah, but local voters still have a little clout. They still have the right to decide who sits on the school boards that will decide unification. So, we elect one school board that appears to have a 3-2 balance of power in support of unification, and another that has a 4-1 balance in opposition.
So much for a clear message from the voters.
But, since it only takes one of the two school boards to kill the whole movement, it appears the voters still have the final say in the matter. Unification is a lost cause. Why? Because the voters said so.
Guess what? A lawyer thinks otherwise.
According to Mingus lawyer Charles Herf, three of the four Mingus school board members who oppose unification should not vote on the issue because of legal conflicts of interest.
For Leland Wieweck, the conflict involves the employment of his wife with the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District. For new Mingus board members Harmon Avera and Tom Parmarter, the conflict deals with residency. They live within the overlapping boundaries of the Mingus Union and Clarkdale-Jerome school districts. They could not govern the unified district, Herf explained, because the Clarkdale-Jerome portion will be lost in unification. In essence, they won’t live in the unified school district, so they can’t participate in any vote relating to such.
The irony of it all is that it’s not likely any of the three will ever vote in support of unification. During the fall campaign, they were known as the anti-unification slate. It’s rather certain none of three would cast a vote creating the conflict of interest described by their lawyer. The lawyer says that doesn’t matter. They shouldn’t vote on any issue relating to unification, including a Mingus vote to rescind the measure.
So, all of a sudden — assuming these board members follow the advice of their lawyer — an anticipated 4-1 vote to kill unification becomes a moot issue because either Mingus lacks a quorum or the issue is deadlocked 1-1.
Unification moves forward.
This has to leave a sour taste in the mouths of even those of us who support unification. There are a lot of us in the Upper Verde who believe in unification, but we’d prefer to have either 1) the community, or 2) the folks we elect to our school boards decide this issue.
Should a merging of these two school districts eventually occur, it’s going to be both a tainted and hollow victory for unification supporters.
After all, we’ve allowed lawyers and politicians to shove the issue down our throats.