State school boards group warns consolidation issue destined to fail

PHOENIX -- A plan to consolidate more than seven dozen school districts in the state is doomed to failure unless there is mechanism to equalize disparities, the lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association warned Tuesday.

And that, she said, will take money -- most likely from the Legislature.

Janice Palmer told members of a special consolidation commission formed by the Legislature that each school district under stud has its own practices and policies. Those include how muc teachers are paid and how much district residents pay in taxes

Palmer said merging these disparate policies will take money. She said voters in each district -- who have to approve any consolidation -- are unlikely to go along unless at least some of those cost questions are resolved.

Even Marty Shultz, chairman of the panel and a key proponent of consolidation, conceded that residents in perhaps half of affected school districts will have to pay more in property taxes, at least in the short term.

But Shultz said the plan can be sold if voters believe there will be long-term cost savings.

That could prove to be a gamble: The legislation that created the system requires each consolidation plan to be approved by each affected district. That means voters in a single school district, perhaps unhappy with higher taxes, could torpedo an entire package.

Arizona has more than 200 individual school districts. Of particular concern are the many individual elementary school districts, each with its own administration, with a separate "union' high school districts, also with their own administration and costs.

Shultz, a lobbyist for Arizona Public Service, said he believes consolidation could save up to 10 percent of costs, not just in shedding administrators and staff but also by combining fixed costs for things like food service. And that, said Shultz, means more money for student education including teachers and support staff.

He cited figures from the state Auditor General's Office showing a large district like Mesa Unified puts close to 63 cents of every dollar into direct classroom instruction. By contrast, he said, the figure in some individual elementary districts is just 50 cents.

But combination comes at a cost, at least to some. That's because a new tax rate will be higher than what residents of some individual districts are now paying.

For example, a plan to create a single unified school district in Phoenix would combine 13 elementary districts. Some would have tax cuts in excess of $1 per $100 of assessed valuation. But there would be hikes of close to $1 for others, translating to nearly $200 a year.

Palmer said that's not the only problem of the plan, which the commission has to present to the governor by the end of the year.

She said a combined district would require parity among teacher and staff salaries. And since no one's pay would be cut, that means costs for pay hikes for those from districts with lower pay scales.

Palmer said the Legislature in prior years provided additional dollars to help ease the transition. She said that's what helped convince voters in Benson and Kingman to approve consolidation.

But Palmer said there is nothing like that in what this commission is proposing.

Jay Kaprosy, lobbyist for the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, said the kind of complaints he hears from Palmer are "excuses used to try to derail the process of consolidation.' He accused her of being more concerned with administrative problems of consolidation than with trying to come up with something that is better for students, families and taxpayers.

Palmer denied the charge. "We wouldn't be here if we weren't trying to make this work,' she said.

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