Wed, April 08

Commentary -- Consolidation: ‘Let’s make a deal’ or ‘A deal is a deal’?

Legal debates can best be summarized by the philosophical clash between “a deal is a deal” and “let’s make a deal.”

That’s at the heart of the latest legal skirmish between community members desiring an election on the consolidation of the Mingus Union and Cottonwood-Oak Creek school districts.

The Committee for Better Upper Verde Valley Schools wants to swing a deal for a judicial decree allowing the planned November 2019 consolidation election to be pushed forward to 2020. Committee members had better hope the judge agrees with them. Otherwise, they’ve blown it. The deadline for filing petitions to have the question on the 2019 ballot was three weeks ago.

As has always been the case with school district consolidation, the devil is in the details. For Andy Groseta and his committee colleagues, a key detail is the recently approved Senate Bill 1073 that makes minor modifications to Arizona’s overall consolidation law. SB 1073 does not become law until August 27.

That obviously brings up memories from a year ago when Groseta and his group began circulating consolidation petitions based on a change in state law that had not yet become effective. In the end, for a variety of reasons Mingus successfully raised in its lawsuit to stop the consolidation election, those petitions were tossed in the trash.

Groseta and company prefer to launch their petition effort this time when all aspects of consolidation law, including the new provisions of SB 1073, are legally on the books.

That’s why they are appealing to the judge to “let’s make a deal.”

Mingus, meanwhile, has taken the firm position that “a deal is a deal.” In legal jargon it’s called a stipulated judgment, something that both sides in the debate concurrently agreed upon.

“The finality of judgments matters,” Mingus lawyers wrote in their response to the request to delay the election for a year. Mingus takes the position that both sides agreed to a November 2019 election, and, further, both sides agreed to the specific language that would be used on the petitions to be circulated by the Committee for Better Upper Verde Valley Schools.

There is no shortage of legal jargon and case law in Mingus’ opposition to having the consolidation election delayed. But it can all be summed up with the premise that “a deal is a deal.”

Ultimately, this debate will be decided by Yavapai County Presiding Superior Court Judge David Mackey. Deal maker, or deal breaker? Time will tell.

He no longer serves on the Mingus Union School Board, but don’t think for a second that former longtime board member Jim Ledbetter doesn’t still pull strings at the high school.

June 11, at the request of Mingus attorney Susan Segal, Ledbetter sat in with the Mingus School Board in an executive session to discuss Mingus’ course of action on the request to delay the consolidation election. Outside of Ledbetter, the executive session was closed to the public.

And in Mingus’ legal response filed in Superior Court last week, Ledbetter’s influence was obviously present. Mingus’ six-page legal response was complemented by a three-page “declaration” by Ledbetter that laid the foundation for Mingus’ position in this latest legal fight.

In particular, Ledbetter notes that the Mingus School Board “was very interested in limiting the time period during which consolidation could be addressed.” Board members, he explained, did not want this issue extended any longer than necessary because of the disruptions it causes in daily operations at Mingus.

Having the election moved from 2018 to November 2019 was key to Mingus agreeing to the stipulated judgment, Ledbetter opined.

Interestingly, though, having this issue extended beyond the original 2018 election has played to Mingus’ advantage, Ledbetter explained in his legal declaration to the court.

While Mingus and the Clarkdale-Jerome school districts have steadfastly opposed consolidation, the current delays have resulted in Cottonwood-Oak Creek doing an about face on consolidation, according to Ledbetter.

“As of the date of preparing this declaration, no governing boards of any of the affected districts have indicated a desire to proceed with consolidation,” Ledbetter wrote.

He continues to explain that the two prior calls for a consolidation election by Cottonwood-Oak Creek “expired as of January, 1, 2019” when a new school board was seated at C-OC.

And since that time, Ledbetter wrote to the court, “the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District has expressed no additional interest in consolidating, especially in light of the considerable, negative information about the financial impacts of consolidation.”

It bears emphasis that Cottonwood-Oak Creek is not a litigant in the lawsuit between Mingus and the Committee for Better Upper Verde Valley Schools.

At least in court, Cottonwood-Oak Creek will not have the chance to respond to Ledbetter’s declaration.

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