2010 Review: Mingus/C-OC unification effort goes sour in 2010

COTTONWOOD - Attempts at unification between Mingus Union High School and Cottonwood-Oak Creek districts have been news many times through the years (sometimes including Clarkdale-Jerome School). A few times the effort was voluntary. At least one time, recently, it was a mandate by the state to give the choice to voters.

But this latest trial seemed early on like it might actually have some traction. After all, it came about as a means to share services and cut costs, a concept more viable today than ever before.

It might have started well, but it ended like an episode on one of the Real Housewives of Wherever.

In early March, the idea of unification was moving along well enough that both districts met in joint session to develop a detailed structure for the new district's leadership. During that meeting both boards and administrations agreed to develop a proposed intergovernmental agreement on unification for each board's next scheduled meeting.

County Superintendent Tim Carter said that his office would have an IGA ready in about 48 hours after the two boards reached an agreement.

C-OC Superintendent Barbara U'Ren told the joint boards that a third party assessment on the strengths of current administrators in both districts was being done by Nancy Alexander, former superintendent of Sedona-Oak Creek School District and former interim superintendent for Mingus. That assessment was to be completed in April.

During joint talks of the two districts on unification, it was made clear that unless money came from the state, the unified district would not be able to afford the cost of equalizing the salaries of teachers. Mingus teacher salaries generally are significantly higher than those at C-OC.

The Arizona House of Representatives approved that help in the form of HB 2587 - the School Districts Unification Assistance. The Senate version eventually watered down the amount of funding assistance the district would receive. But by that time, the amount of savings identified by MUHS Superintendent Tim Foist that would come just from the process of unifying seemed to be enough money to justify unification.

Unfortunately, by June the communications between the two districts was almost nonexistent and unification seemed to be a dead issue. During the last week of June, the two boards met again in joint session to see where each board stood on unification.

The air appeared to be clear by the end of that meeting and both districts were committed to continuing the unification process. Even though the meeting ended with both boards being on the same page, it did not begin that way. Each board was working under the impression that the other board had given up on pursuing unification. Those impressions were due to a serious lack of communication.

The C-OC board thought that Foist had killed the third-party assessment being done by Alexander.

Foist was not present during the June joint board session, but his board indicated that no one on the board was aware that he had stopped Alexander from completing the study.

Another issue had to do with an IGA to share transportation services between districts. The administration at C-OC had sent an agreement to Mingus back in September 2009 and again in March 2010. As far as the C-OC administration knew Mingus had never acted on the agreement.

John Tavasci, MUHS board president, and James Ledbetter, MUHS board member, both agreed that their board had in fact approved the transportation agreement.

C-OC board president Randy Garrison said it looked like the unification effort had died and MUHS was backing away from shared services.

Adding to that perception by the C-OC board and administration was a contract between the two districts in which C-OC provided food service to MUHS.

C-OC decided to enter into a contract with a food-service company and stop running its own department. But C-OC still intended to provide food service to MUHS. But C-OC board members saw a newspaper advertisement by MUHS for a food-service director. The assumption was that MUHS was pulling out of its food-service agreement with C-OC.

Ledbetter told the joint board members that Foist had come to the MUHS board and told them that C-OC would no longer provide food service.

Kirk Waddle, business manager for Mingus, posted a blog comment following the Verde Independent's story on the joint board meeting. Waddle's blog stated that the Mingus board had rejected the food service IGA with C-OC because the C-OC menu was subpar and did not meet national food nutrition standards.

Actually, the MUHS board had never had that discussion. But board and administration members at C-OC were offended by Waddle's comments.

This newspaper investigated Waddle's charges and could find no evidence of C-OC serving a subpar menu or any food items that did not meet nutrition standards. But the damage had been done.

During its mid-July meeting, the C-OC governing board pulled the plug on unification with MUHS. Board member Eric Wyles asked the board: "Do we want to be part of the turmoil?"

The only C-OC board member to vote to continue the unification process was Lori Simmons. "I want to fight for our kids, our teachers and our taxpayers," she said.

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