School districts could be consolidated

Commission urges unification of three local districts

If a statewide task force has its way, Mingus Union, Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Clarkdale-Jerome school districts will become one consolidated district.

The Verde Valley Unified School District is the name suggested for the new district.

Even though the state can mandate that the question of consolidation be put on a ballot, local voters will make the decision for or against unification.

If a vote comes, it won't be before November 2008.

A 2005 state law established The School District Redistricting Commission, a task force that is looking into the viability of unifying some school districts in the state. The driving force behind the commission is a widely held perception that consolidation will streamline costs and improve educational quality.

Local administrators agree that consolidation will in fact have a significant impact on class size, school boards, administration, salaries, curriculum and taxes. They don't necessarily agree that the impact will be positive.

"One thing we're looking at is the data shows there is not a cost savings in unification," said Sharyl Allen, superintendent of Mingus Union High School District. She said cost reduction is one of the main factors behind the push for unification. She said improvement of student performance is another driving force.

"We're simply saying, show us the data that substantiates that unification is good for the students, community and taxpayers," Allen said. "We're opposed to the erosion of local control."

Allen said the experience of the Kingman School District does not support the premise behind consolidation. "They've not seen an improvement since unification," she said.

Julie Larson, superintendent of Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District, also questions available data. Larson and Allen are meeting Wednesday with a member of the statewide commission to cover some concerns, including what the available data shows.

"We have a lot of issues," Larson said. She said just a couple of important concerns are the differences between existing districts of cost of insurance and teacher salary schedules.

Larson said the school districts have not yet received an official report on the commission's recommendations. She said all school boards will eventually receive a report. Then the boards may respond with questions. Larson said she hopes the commission will then respond directly to the school boards' concerns and questions.

At Clarkdale-Jerome School District, Superintendent Kathleen Fleenor feels the people in the district want to keep their school system a part of the community.

"This flies in the face of local control," Fleenor said.

"People here are really involved in this school," she said. Fleenor also wonders how consolidation would affect pay schedules throughout the district, from the teachers and bus drivers to the secretaries and custodians.

Fleenor said she reported to the commission early on that just in grant dollars alone, unification would cost her school $150,000.

"One good thing," Fleenor said, "is that it goes to voters."

That is confirmed by Rita Leyva of the Yavapai County Superintendent's Office. She is a member of the statewide commission that's looking into unification. She said the question of unification "absolutely" will go before the voters in each school district included in consolidation. "That's the best reason I feel good about the commission," she said.

Leyva said that no matter what the commission decides, local voters will have the final say.

Marvin Lamer, superintendent of the Valley Academy of Career and Technology Education, said consolidation locally would not affect the money his district receives from the state. "I don't think it will make any difference," Lamer said. He explained that the state money is based on the number of high school students in each vo-tech district.

"It won't change the geographic boundaries of the district," Lamer said.

Such unification could, however, affect the governing board of VACTE. Currently, each vo-tech district must have five board members. With VACTE, each of the five satellite districts has one governing board member. Those members are elected from Sedona, Camp Verde, Mingus, Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Clarkdale-Jerome school districts. With the proposed unification, the number of districts would be reduced from five to three.

Lamer said he doesn't know how that will be handled so that five board members are available. "We would ask them to retain the voting districts," he said.

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