Thu, Dec. 05

Commentary: Consolidation provides best outcome for all students

Deana DeWitt

Deana DeWitt

I have been asked by a few of my Verde Valley friends about where I stand on the issue of Cottonwood-Oak Creek/Mingus Union consolidation

As there have been several news stories and social media posts about the prospect of consolidation recently, I decided that I would weigh-in.

Full disclosure: When it comes to educational issues, I have an agenda. I am not neutral. I have and always will support any decision and/or policy that I believe promotes the best possible educational opportunities for ALL children.

That said, I believe that a unified K-12 district would best serve the kids in our community. I also believe strongly that if you care about the education of high school kids, you must also care about the education THOSE SAME kids receive prior to high school. Likewise, you cannot stop caring about elementary students’ education when they exit 8th grade.

Twelve of my 16 years in education have been spent working in the Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union school districts. My last three years have been with Sedona Oak Creek Unified School District. All but one year in my career have been spent serving children in the Verde Valley; I worked in Deer Valley Unified School District in Anthem for the 2005-2006 school year.

I have taught 1st, 5th, 6th, 8th and 9th grades as well as 9th-12th grade alternative/online education in the Verde Valley. I was lucky enough to teach several of my students (including some of those of current board members from both districts) as elementary and again as high school students.

During my tenure with Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus, I had the opportunity to work with and for some of the most talented and dedicated individuals I’ve ever encountered, and I have unyielding respect for the board members, administrators, and staff in both districts now grappling with the myriad of challenges facing education in Arizona.

I believe those on BOTH sides of this issue truly feel that their respective positions are right for kids. However, the positions held by those on both sides are influenced by their individual experiences and perspectives, just as mine have been, and are generally relative to specific contexts.

As a member of the Consolidation Advisory Committee, I had the opportunity to analyze data on both sides of the issue. This consolidation is a very challenging, complicated issue without a clear, guaranteed resolution.

The financial projections that have been made (by both sides) are largely speculative, educated guesses at best. I can also say that much of the financial data that has been distributed speaks to reduction of redundancies but assumes almost all other operations will remain the same. I believe there are other potential areas for efficiency/savings that have not been explored or even discussed.

Further, the cost of equalizing the salaries of Cottonwoode-Oak Creek staff in a consolidated district is often cited as cost-prohibitive, thereby adding merit to the anti-consolidation argument.

However, NOTHING says that salary equalization has to be achieved immediately with consolidation. While I agree with the anti-consolidation constituents that consolidation should not be done “on the backs” of Mingus teachers, I do not subscribe to the idea that if consolidation cannot give Cottonwood-Oak Creek teachers complete equalization, then they should get NONE. I believe that a plan to include movement toward equalization is feasible.

The terribly insufficient state funding formula, assigns higher weight (monetary value) to high school students than it does elementary students. While a typical high school student is weighted at 1.4 for financial calculations for funding allocations, for instance, a kindergarten student is only weighted at 0.5 (funding is nearly two-thirds less, although our kindergarten students still attend school full-time with the associated costs of a full-time teacher/staff, etc.). All other typical 1-8 grade students are funded at 1.0 weight. This accounts for much higher funding allocations at the high school level.

I’ve been asked whether I believe the high school should have to “pay for” the funding inequities that exist for the elementary district.

My answer is this: The quality of the instructional experience students have during their primary and elementary years has a direct impact not only on their future success, but also on the amount of remediation and extra support those students will need in high school.

In short, investments made earlier could reap greater dividends in the long run. They are the same kids. In a unified district, the burden of educating the whole child K-12 is a shared responsibility.

For these and a number of other reasons, I am confident consolidation is the right thing to do.

However, my concern is whether leadership will be able to ensure its success. I’ve learned a lot about human nature over the past couple of years, particularly when it comes to how adults handle opposing views and perceived threats to their personal interests.

Unfortunately, we seem to live in a time where divisiveness and sabotage are the norm; “if I can’t have my way, I’ll do my best to see that yours isn’t successful.”

Yes, I have seen this even with issues in education where kids have become collateral damage.

I assure you, this concern will weigh heavily on how I choose to vote on this issue, should I have the chance to in November.

It will also weigh heavily on how I choose to vote on our future elected leaders at all levels.

Frankly, if consolidation doesn’t end up making it on the ballot or if it does but loses to the majority, I will still support the students in both districts as well as both districts’ efforts to meet the needs of the students they serve.

I would hope the same would be true of all anti-consolidation constituents should the issue make it to the ballot and win the majority vote.

Deana DeWitt is the director of curriculum and instruction for the Sedona-Oak Creek Joint Unified School District. She is a former teacher and instructional coach in both the Mingus Union and Cottonwood-Oak Creek school districts.

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