Sat, March 28

Voters decide MUHS, C-OC unification Nov. 4

Voters in local school districts will decide Nov. 4 whether to unify Mingus Union High School and Cottonwood-Oak Creek districts into a single school district. Voters might also be doing something else - something the ballot doesn't mention - they might be creating an entirely new district.

When this all started in 2005, the question seemed simple enough: should Mingus Union High School, Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Clarkdale-Jerome school districts be consolidated into one district? The idea has been tried before between MUHS and C-OC. It never really found much traction.

But this time the state said it would be different. This time, voters in the targeted districts - instead of school boards - would decide.

Senate Bill 1068 became law in 2005, creating the School District Redistricting Commission, a task force to look into the viability of unifying some school districts in Arizona. The SDRC recommended that MUHS, C-OC and Clarkdale-Jerome all be consolidated into the Verde Valley Unified School District.

The driving force behind the commission was a widely held perception that consolidation streamlines costs and improves education. Locally, those perceptions were challenged almost immediately.

By mid August of 2007, C-OC board members approved a letter drafted by Superintendent Barbara U'Ren stating the district's opposition to the consolidation. That letter outlined several categories of opposition including: funding loss of elementary programs, student achievement, loss of school board control and philosophical differences between districts.

U'Ren's letter stated that the cost of bringing C-OC teachers up to the salary level of MUHS teachers would be about $750,000 a year. U'Ren pointed out that the state had no funding source to cover that cost. Trying to equalize salary, benefits and facility deficiencies would, according to the C-OC board, cause a loss of some elementary programs, including music. The district also would lose physical education teachers, nurses, counselors and librarians.

The MUHS board and administration also responded with a letter to the SDRC. They supported unification, but only if the state met three requirements. Those requirements for MUHS to support unification were basically the same as the reasons C-OC came out in opposition to it.

One was that the state provides funding to cover losses by smaller school districts. Another was that the state pays to equalize salaries and benefits. MUHS also requested that the state "provide data on cost savings if all three districts unified."

That data was something the state apparently could not provide. Throughout the process of SDRC's public meetings and through all of its communications with the targeted districts, commission members said they do not have figures on cost savings of unification.

By November of 2007, Clarkdale-Jerome School District got a pass on putting the question of unification to its voters. Rita Leyva, the Yavapai County representative on the SDRC sent an email to the commission recommending removal of Clarkdale-Jerome from the process. "I have made up my mind that the commission's unification proposal for the districts in the northeast corner or our county should not include Clarkdale-Jerome ESD."

Leyva's reasoning was that the voters in the Clarkdale-Jerome District were certain to vote down any unification effort. If that happened, even if voters in C-OC and MUHS districts voted for unification, the ballot question would fail. That would require another election for the voters in C-OC and MUHS districts.

With the removal of Clarkdale-Jerome from the mix, it seemed that the question of consolidating C-OC and MUHS districts would be simpler. That notion didn't last long.

During a June retreat of the MUHS School Board, Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter said language on the ballot for the general election could confuse voters. Worse than that, he said the language on the ballot could end up creating a new high school district in the Clarkdale-Jerome school system, an unintended consequence that would fly in the face of what SDRC intended.

MUHS Superintendent Scott Dunsmore agreed with Carter about the two ballot questions. "If No. 1 passes and No. 2 passes, we've created a new high school district for Clarkdale-Jerome," he said.

Dunsmore also said he fears that taxpayers in the MUHS and C-OC districts would see tax increases. He explained that if the unification happens, one of the biggest tax contributors in the MUHS district, Phoenix Cement, would be in the newly created Clarkdale-Jerome high school district.

Ballot Question 1 reads: "Should Mingus Union High School District #4, be subdivided with boundaries identical to the boundaries of Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District #6 and Clarkdale-Jerome School District #3 to become political subdivisions of the State of Arizona?"

Ballot Question 2 reads: "Do you support the unification of the subdivided portion of the Mingus Union High School District #4, with boundaries identical to the boundaries of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District #6 to create one unified school district, as a political subdivision of the State of Arizona, to provide instruction in preschool programs for pupils with disabilities and in kindergarten and grades one through twelve?"

Carter simplifies it: "Both questions must pass for a unification to take place. A "no' vote on either question 1 or question 2 will leave the districts as they currently exist."

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