For years – decades to be more exact – Upper Verde Valley education officials have been very good at talking about school district consolidation, unification and the sharing of administrative services.
They have not been nearly so good at doing it.
With this week’s announcement about the resignation of Mingus Union’s highly respected business manager Kirk Waddle, we have an excellent opportunity to put some action behind all the recent words of late about the consolidation of the Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek districts.
Too often in past years, consolidation efforts stalled out over the issue of who would serve as superintendent of the merged district. That’s not the case today. Mingus’ Penny Hargrove and Cottonwood-Oak Creek’s Steve King have been on the job six weeks now. While King at least has local name-recognition, neither he nor Hargrove have been battle-tested enough that the community should get into a tug-of-war over the two should consolidation move forward.
Where current consolidation waters get murky for many observers is when the focus is placed on the business offices of the two districts. Both Mingus’ Kirk Waddle and Cottonwood-Oak Creek’s David Snyder have stood the test of time in the Verde Valley. Both are highly respected. Both have consistently provided their districts with clean fiscal bills of health.
More than likely, with a consolidated district, one or the other would be without a job. It’s exactly the kind of stumbling block that gets into the way of rational thinking about consolidation.
But with Waddle bowing out, the Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek school boards have an ideal opportunity to show some good faith about how sincere they are about shared services as a stepping stone to consolidation.
Remember, it was not too many years ago that the two districts touted the virtues of sharing admin services as an alternative, or a bridge, to an eventual merger of the districts. In 2011, then Mingus School Board President Jim Ledbetter wrote, “This suggestion is driven by the belief that the districts could operate with a single superintendent, business manager, curriculum director, transportation director, etc. Essentially, we believe the administrations could be streamlined for a significant cost savings.”
By 2012, the two districts had contractually agreed to share a special education director as well as transportation and maintenance/grounds services. Those shared services were highly touted when Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus were simultaneously seeking voter approval for overrides in 2013. In a June 2013 joint meeting of the two school districts, board members emphasized that they had a much better chance of gaining voter favor if they could show progress toward shared services.
That sentiment was largely forgotten by the time then-Mingus Superintendent Dr. Paul Tighe stepped down in April 2016. Neither Mingus nor Cottonwood-Oak Creek showed any initiative toward sharing a superintendent. Sixteen months later, Mingus has had three different superintendents.
In fact, not only have the two districts failed at taking forward steps toward shared services -- much less consolidation -- they have actually taken backward steps. Today, there are no shared positions or services between Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek. The shared special education director position was phased out after the 2015-16 school year.
The two school boards are, however, again talking about consolidation. And, once again, both school boards are in that cycle where they want the community to support an override. The show of good faith toward – using Mr. Ledbetter’s words – streamlining administrations for significant cost savings can be achieved right now, and hopefully for reasons beyond selling the community on the merits of budget overrides.
Instead of Mingus hiring a new business manager, the high school should retain its business office support staff, and contract with Cottonwood-Oak Creek for the services of its business manager.
It’s an opportunity to put words into action.