Sun, Sept. 22

Editorial: A new year, and already a new focus on consolidation

We’ve barely turned the page on the calendar to 2019 and already the renewed battle for Upper Verde school district consolidation is taking shape.

The newest development comes from the office of District 6 State Sen. Sylvia Allen. A year ago, Allen successfully tweaked Arizona law on consolidation for those districts that sought a merger of a union high school into the boundaries of an elementary district. Locally, that prompted a citizen initiative to have the consolidation question placed on the ballot to merge Mingus Union into the smaller boundaries of Cottonwood-Oak Creek, leaving Clarkdale-Jerome an independent district with its own distinct geographic boundaries.

That effort stalled out because of a successful legal challenge by Mingus Union based on the propriety of the petition language and process.

In addition, one of Mingus’ primary concerns about the 2018 consolidation effort was the impact it would have on the Verde Valley’s joint technical education school district, commonly known as VACTE.

That issue is now front and center on the consolidation battlefield. Sen. Allen has released a copy of draft legislation that clearly addresses the VACTE hurdle.

In its draft form, it states, “If a school district that was participating in a career technical education district at the time the school district was unified or consolidated … the successor school district that results from that unification or consolidation shall automatically continue to participate in that career technical education district in the same manner as the former school district that was unified or consolidated.”

The draft legislation is currently making the rounds through the various school districts in the Verde Valley as well as interested parties throughout the state. This is an exercise in due diligence to allow everyone to weigh in on the proposal and suggest changes.

No doubt, it also will see some parties draw a line in the sand and state they are firmly opposed to it under any circumstances.

How this all plays out in the Verde Valley remains to be seen.

That story line will be especially interesting in 2019 because we have a largely new cast of characters directing education policy at Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek. Mingus has three new board members, a new board president and a new superintendent. Cottonwood-Oak Creek has two new board members and a new board president.

Roles could reverse.

We’ve seen that before over the years in school district consolidation efforts. Last year, the battle lines were clearly drawn with Mingus firmly opposed to consolidation, and Cottonwood-Oak Creek adamantly wanting the issue to go to the voters.

Flashback to 2010, though, and it was Mingus, in a 3-2 board vote, that wanted to pursue unification with Cottonwood-Oak Creek, only to see the elementary school district later bail out, citing no confidence in the Mingus Union High School administration.

As we move forward in 2019, letting the voters have the final say on consolidation would happen in one of two ways.

First would require an affirmative vote of both schools boards requesting County School Superintendent Tim Carter place the question on the November 2019 ballot. Cottonwood-Oak Creek has made such a request twice in the past year. Mingus has not.

Short of that happening would require another citizen petition drive. Last year’s petition organizers have said they are up to the challenge to repeat that process in 2019. But, it bears emphasis, that the group responsible for the 2018 petition effort took a beating physically, emotionally and financially. They were visibly worn down after Mingus thwarted their consolidation efforts with a lawsuit, and admitted they had exhausted considerably more from their own personal finances than they ever had expected when they began the process. Time will tell if they are truly willing to take on such a burden again this year.

One thing is for certain, though, moving forward. There will be more talk – much of it heated and contentious – about Upper Verde school district consolidation. That has been a constant theme in the Verde Valley for more than half a century.

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