Commentary: Consolidation history lesson

Last week it was the fate of voter-approved bond and override money should consolidation of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union school districts be approved by voters – should an election even take place.

This week, local social media posts concerning consolidation offer a confusing account of just how many times local voters have weighed in on this issue. At the extreme end of the banter is the claim that consolidation has been voted down time and again, many times over the years, and every time it’s been a slam dunk.

That’s partially true, especially the slam dunk part. But as for the frequency with which we’ve voted on this issue, we’ve only gone to the polls twice on a consolidation/unification of the Upper Verde’s elementary and high school districts.

The first election occurred in March 1988. It was a citizen initiative that proposed a merger of the Clarkdale-Jerome, Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union districts. It was rejected by voters by a substantial margin: 85 percent of the voters in the Clarkdale-Jerome District voted no, and 59 percent of the voters in the Cottonwood-Oak Creek District likewise rejected consolidation.

The second consolidation election was one that was forced on Upper Verde voters by the Arizona Legislature in 2008. The consensus opinion of local and county leadership going into this election was that the framing of the questions was badly botched by the state. As summarized in an October 2008 Verde Independent editorial, “The people in the Upper Verde Valley need to be the ones who devise the framework for what school district unification will become, not the State of Arizona.”

This election likewise went down to defeat. Clarkdale-Jerome voters rejected consolidation by a 65-35 percent margin (as compared to 85-15 one decade earlier). Cottonwood-Oak Creek voters, which make up the balance of the Mingus district, rejected two different consolidation ballot questions by 61- and 57-percent margins. That is very consistent with the C-OC election results from a decade prior.

That’s it, folks. Two elections. Two defeats for consolidation. Both times by healthy margins.

The confusion on the number of elections that have taken place on consolidation probably lies with the number of close calls we’ve had over the years. This issue has been with us rather consistently since 1981.

Petitions with 1,441 signatures were presented to the school boards in 1981 and the school boards, in turn, voted against moving forward with consolidation.

In 2001, the Arizona Legislature promoted consolidation of school districts in Arizona with the offer of three years of incentive money to equalize salaries and ease any financial burdens caused by district mergers. The Mingus Union School Board rejected the state’s offer by a 4-0 vote, and in the process rendered Cottonwood-Oak Creek’s opinion meaningless.

In January 2010, both the Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek school boards voted to “proceed with the first steps toward unification.” By July of the same year, Cottonwood-Oak Creek bailed on the deal, “citing no confidence in the Mingus Union High School administration.” Interestingly, eight years later, the roles are reversed: Cottonwood-Oak Creek wants voters to have the final say on consolidation. Mingus Union is adamantly opposed to consolidation.

That brings us to the present. An election has been called, and Mingus has filed a lawsuit to prevent it from happening.

Who knows if we’ll ever see a consolidation of the Upper Verde school districts? Time will tell if we even get to vote on it this time.

One thing is for certain, though. We will continue to fuss and fight over it.

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