Movement underway to amend Arizona school district consolidation law

House Appropriations Committee votes 8-to-5 to allow for common district to be consolidated into larger district

State Sen. Sylvia Allen

State Sen. Sylvia Allen

COTTONWOOD – Wednesday, Arizona’s House Appropriations Committee voted 8-to-5 to allow for a common district to be consolidated into a union or unified school district, and to remove school board veto power over voter decisions on consolidation.

This doesn’t mean that Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union school districts will consolidate this year – or ever. But it does mean that certain sticking points discussed by the Advisory Committee for Consolidation might one day not stand in the way should the two districts finally agree to become one.

Should the Arizona State Senate vote to approve SB 1254, former Mingus Union school board member Andy Groseta and his pro-consolidation group may have the language it needs on a petition to solicit signatures of support to take consolidation to vote in November.

According to JoAnne Cook, board president of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District, “getting [the consolidation issue] on the ballot so the community can vote” is what merger talks have been “all about.”

“We’ve thought all along it should go to the voters,” Cook said Friday. “If [SB 1254] does go through, it’s an opportunity for the voters to say how [the consolidation vote] should go. All we want to do is to put it on the ballot.”

Dianne Smith, executive director of the Greater Phoenix Educational Management Council, attended Wednesday’s committee hearing because she has “followed [consolidation] conversations for many years.”

“We’re evaluating what potential impact this would be to our member districts,” Smith said.

According to Smith, SB 1254 is “not specific to the Verde Valley.”

“It could impact other districts as well,” she said.

SB 1254 could change existing state law …

Arizona State Senator Sylvia Allen introduced Senate Bill 1254 in the March 28 House Appropriations Committee Hearing to change existing state law on school district consolidation.

Munger Chadwick P.L.C. attorney Zachary Cohen told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday that he has been working with the Groseta group to “draft statutory language” that would allow C-OC and Mingus Union school districts to merge “in a manner that closely mirrors existing forms of consolidation already available under A.R.S 15-459.”

Cohen also cited A.R.S. 15-448 as the “unification statute” as “currently the only way to combine a common school district with a high school district,” that Allen’s proposed amendment to A.R.S 15-459 “solves this problem by creating a new form of consolidation which allows one common school district to merge into a high school district.”

That larger geographical district already includes Clarkdale-Jerome School District, which means that CJSD would remain in the district and would not be required to pay tuition for its students to attend the new consolidated/unified district, should voters approve such a merger.

“We designed the amendment to offer a path of least resistance for school districts that wish to save administrative overhead by consolidating without precluding students from other common school districts from attending high school in the new district,” Cohen said. “The funding that is saved on administrative overhead is funding that can pass into the classroom.”

Because the consolidated district would take on the geography of the current Mingus Union district, Phoenix Cement (Salt River Materials Group) in Clarkdale would be a part of the new district (A.R.S 15-459) “without shrinking the boundaries of the new district,” Cohen said.

Also, there would be no division of Mingus Union assets, according to Cottonwood-Oak Creek school board member Jason Finger.

What that means is that the relationship between Clarkdale-Jerome and Mingus Union would in effect stay the same, and any monies Clarkdale-Jerome paid toward past bonds would not have to be paid back to Clarkdale-Jerome, Finger also said.

SB 1254 would also amend A.R.S 15-459 (H), which Cohen said would exclude “the requirement to obtain governing board approval from both districts in order to consolidate.”

Not only a “voter empowerment initiative,” Cohen said that the proposed amendment to A.R.S 15-459 (H) “eliminates a conflict of interest from the consolidation process.”

Next step …

What’s next for SB 1254 is that it will go to the House Rules Committee where that committee will “make sure that it’s constitutional and in proper form,” Smith said.

After that, SB 1254 would go to both the House Democratic and House Republican caucuses.

Consolidation committee meets again …

The next meeting of the Advisory Committee for Consolidation is scheduled for 4 p.m. Tuesday, April 3 at the Cottonwood Public Safety Building multi-purpose rooms A & B, located at 199 S. 6th St. This meeting is open to the public.

How the proposed amendments to SB 1254 could affect the work of the consolidation committee is unclear at this time. But Cook said that the consolidation committee – of which she is a member – will “still do its fact-finding.”

“We’ll see what the committee thinks moving forward,” she said.

At the meeting, C-OC and Mingus Union business managers are expected to provide classified salary data to the committee.

Mingus Union Business Manager Lynn Leonard and Cottonwood-Oak Creek Director of Business Services David Snyder will identify discrepancies within the classified staffing salaries of each district.

Within 24 hours of the meeting, the agenda will be available at the Mingus Union website, https://v3.boardbook.org/Public/PublicHome.aspx?ak=1000989.

-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42

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