Tue, Feb. 25

Commentary: Structure of consolidation committee has fox guarding hen house

Consolidation of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek, Mingus Union and sometimes Clarkdale-Jerome school districts has been batted around like a ping-pong ball over the past three decades.

But it’s hard to remember a time when the impetus for the effort was so community driven. Cottonwood’s Andy Groseta has surrounded himself with a contingent of former school board members, former school administrators, and long-time community leaders. They’ve been persistent in applying pressure to the Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek boards. They’ve done their homework. They’ve done an exhaustingly thorough job in researching the myriad issues relating to this proposed marriage of the two school districts.

That’s why it was disappointing last week to see the two school boards take the emphasis away from the community when deciding the structure of the local task force that will study the consolidation issue that already has been studied to death over the past 30 years.

The two boards both agreed this special study committee will be composed of the presidents and vice presidents of each school board, as well as two staff members from each school district. The balance of the task force will include three, maybe four, members of the community.

So, while the very reason we are talking about school district consolidation at all right now is because of community activism, the school boards think it’s best the education establishment, instead of the community, do all the fact-finding this time around.

Some folks would view this as the fox guarding the hen house.

It’s a road we’ve been down before with consolidation. If history repeats itself, having educators carry the load on this effort will mean it becomes an emotion-driven exercise instead of a fact-finding mission. Saving jobs, protecting the status quo, will be the ultimate objective.

When it comes to school district consolidation, few folks are as well versed on the subject as former Kingman school administrator Betsy Parker.

Parker has been there. She has done that.

She was a key player in a 2001 consolidation effort that merged the former Kingman Elementary School District with the Mohave Union High School District.

The Kingman district consolidation brought together seven elementary schools and two high schools that served more than 5,000 students. As a point of comparison, the proposed Cottonwood-Oak Creek, Mingus Union merger would marry five elementary/middle schools with a single high school that collectively serves about 3,500 students.

The Kingman merger joined two school district offices that were about four miles apart into a single unified operation. If successful, a Mingus-C-OC consolidation would bring together two district offices that are about a mile from each other.

It doesn’t happen overnight, said Parker, but in the end a successful school district consolidation results in a downsizing of administrative services and personnel.

“It’s an overall streamlining of operations,” Parker explained. “You no longer need two fleets of school buses and transportation departments. You no longer need two different school lunch programs. You combine warehousing operations and purchasing. Two of everything becomes one of everything. Our community was very much behind it. They saw no reason to have two school districts in the same town.”

The Kingman elementary-high school consolidation parallels the Cottonwood effort in that there was disparity in the teacher salaries in the two districts. As is the case in Cottonwood, Kingman’s high school teachers were paid more than their counterparts at the elementary level, a disparity that Parker said was fundamentally wrong. “The teachers supported it -- the elementary teachers -- as the high school teachers were making more money so there was a real benefit to them in supporting it,” said Parker.

There are key differences though, she explained, in the effort now underway in the Verde Valley with the one Kingman experienced 16 years ago. The catalyst for the Kingman effort was a financial incentive package offered by the Arizona Legislature. The 2001 legislative program provided extra funding to the new consolidated district for three years to ease the transition, not to mention the financial relief it provided in equalizing the salary disparities between the elementary and high school teaching staffs in Kingman.

Another big difference between the Kingman effort and Cottonwood’s is the manner in which consolidation was ultimately achieved. Kingman’s consolidation was consummated by a unanimous vote of the two school boards.

As Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter explained, that was a one-shot deal for Kingman and the other school districts that consolidated under the special 2001 legislation. Just as it provided incentive money to ease the transition, the 2001 legislation also allowed the merging school boards to vote on consolidation without taking the issue before voters.

“I’m not a lawyer,” Carter emphasized, “but every time I’ve had this issue researched by the county attorney’s office, the consistent message I’ve received is that consolidation ultimately requires voter approval.”

There are two ways that can happen, said Carter. The first requires a majority vote – not a unanimous vote -- of the two school boards to place the question on the ballot. The second is a citizen initiative in which a required number of district voters sign petitions to legally force the question to a public vote.

As for the long-term implications of the consolidation in Kingman, Parker said there have been no regrets. She said the unification has been good for students, teachers and taxpayers. The money savings expected from unification was achieved, she said.

Parker continued to serve as an assistant administrator with the consolidated Kingman district through 2009, before assuming the superintendent’s position for the community’s Joint Technical Education District for the final six years of her career.

So what does a former administrator who played such a key role in re-shaping the Kingman education landscape do in retirement?

Today, she’s a teacher.

She teaches as many as four yoga classes a day.

“A lot less stress,” she said.

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