Law may unify some school districts<br><i>Bill passes legislature and goes to governor</i>

The Arizona Legislature has approved a bill that would inject the state into school district mergers, an issue often thought best handled locally.

Senate Bill 1068 has been passed in the House and Senate and now goes to Gov. Janet Napolitano.

Essentially, the bill would create a commission to propose which elementary and high school districts should be merged.

The commission would hold extensive hearings before proposing any mergers. Once proposed, a specific merger of school districts would be submitted to voters in those districts.

The bill is a watered-down version of others previously rejected by the Legislature.

Kathleen Fleenor, superintendent of Clarkdale-Jerome School District, said her district's board members are against the bill.

"The state is trying to take away local control," she said.

Fleenor said she has e-mailed Napolitano asking the governor to veto the bill. She also said the Arizona School Boards Association is against the bill.

She said consolidations should be handled locally because there are too many specific issues to work out. For example, differences in salaries, benefits and tax rates are issues that must be settled before a merger can occur.

Although politicians often propose mergers as a means of reducing education costs, Fleenor said unification would cost more in the long run.

"When you merge, you have to go with the highest [salaries]," she said.

Another issue Fleenor pointed out is that Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek districts have current overrides and Clarkdale-Jerome does not. She said homeowners in her district would then pay taxes for the existing overrides.

Bryan Detwiler, Mingus Union board member, said he isn't fond of the proposed bill.

"I think unification is a good idea fiscally," he said. "But I have a problem with the state dictating to local districts."

Detwiler said it is best if unification is decided locally. "It needs to happen naturally," he said.

He believes unification will eventually make good sense in the Verde Valley, but local districts must solve issues such as busing and salaries.

"We need to have local control," Detwiler said. "That's the big thing for me."

Cottonwood-Oak Creek Superintendent Julie Larson said she isn't sure if the law will reach into rural Arizona. She said the issues have more to do with Phoenix-area districts and their feeder schools.

"We're waiting to see what the bill will look like," Larson said. "Naturally, we'll go with whatever the law says."

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