COTTONWOOD -- The process of consolidating or unifying multiple school districts into one is kind of like putting a jigsaw puzzle together.
Wednesday, the Mingus Union School Board threw all those puzzle pieces out on the table.
Meeting before a Who’s Who of past and present Verde Valley education leaders, Mingus board members went through a detailed shopping list of the pros and cons of a possible merger of the three Upper Verde school districts. With a healthy mix of Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union representation, noticeably absent from Wednesday’s gathering was elective or administrative staff from the Clarkdale-Jerome School District.
That makes it imperative, said Mingus Union Board President Anita Glazar, for the high school to reach out to the elementary district.
“We need to have a conversation with Clarkdale-Jerome,” said Glazar. “We need to hear what they have to say.”
Such a conversation, said Glazar, will help decide if future consolidation discussions will be between Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek exclusively, or if all three districts will be involved.
Glazar said she views the Upper Verde school district consolidation landscape as one in which Cottonwood-Oak Creek officials support such a merger with Mingus being hesitant and Clarkdale-Jerome adamantly opposed.
Not so hesitant, though, was veteran Mingus Board Member Jim Ledbetter, who said, “We all know, intuitively, that this makes logical sense.”
Added soon-to-be retired Cottonwood-Oak Creek Superintendent Barb U’Ren, “With an ever-limited and more-narrow pool of resources, it’s only common sense that school districts find new ways of doing business … so this discussion is very good.”
Sourcing a comprehensive overview of school district consolidation compiled by interim Mingus Superintendent Dr. Jack Keegan, various consolidation-unification efforts have come and gone in the Upper Verde dating back to the 1950s. Local voters have gone to the polls five times to decide various marriages of Cottonwood-Oak Creek, Mingus Union and Clarkdale-Jerome. As Glazar duly noted, “They have all been defeated.”
Ledbetter noted, however, that the issue does not have to be decided by voters, but can be determined by an outright vote of the member school boards.
To which Glazar replied, “Don’t you still want to live in this community?”
Pros and Cons
One area of success the Mingus board enjoyed Wednesday was separating the puzzle pieces that represent the pros and cons of consolidation.
Board members cited cost-savings, curriculum alignment, coordination of school calendars, unified professional development and pupil-transportation efficiency as the major benefits of consolidation.
At the other extreme, board members expressed concern about potential claims against Mingus capital by Clarkdale-Jerome in the event only Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek merged into a single district. Other issues of concern involve resolving the staggered override schedules of the various districts, the potential loss of specialized revenue sources and the process of educating the community on the merits of consolidation.
The biggest obstacle, however, is finding a way to equalize the salary structure of the three school districts. The study compiled by Keegan showed the current average teacher salary in the Clarkdale-Jerome District to be $56,704. At the low end of the scale is Cottonwood-Oak Creek at $40,314. Mingus sits in the middle with average teacher pay at $45,746.
Clarkdale-Jerome teachers have, on average, 15.8 years of classroom experience with no one on the CJ teaching staff having less than three years’ experience. Mingus, on the other hand, has the youngest teaching staff, on average, with 9.5 years of experience and 19 percent of its teachers have three or fewer years of experience.
The Mingus board tasked Keegan with piecing together an administrative and staffing organizational chart of what a consolidated district would look like. There are past studies in place to aid that process. Keegan said he also would consult with U’Ren in determining such a staff structure.
“You have to remember, though,” said Keegan, “is that my perspective is based on large, unified districts and I could be off 180 degrees from a local and more rural perspective.”
This is the part of the process that also becomes very tricky, Keegan warned.
“This is when the adults get very nervous about who will be left sitting in their chair,” he said.