Commentary: Odds and ends on school district consolidation

The old joke about hockey games and fights is a lot like the current movement to consolidate the Mingus Union and Cottonwood-Oak Creek school districts.

“I went to a fight the other night and a consolidation meeting broke out.”

‘In a completely objective and non-politicized process, Carter would do what our local consolidation committee is now trying to do in a highly charged emotional and politicized process ... Which is about as redundant as having three layers of school district administration for three school districts, two of which govern one school each’

The latest skirmish is one from the old he-said, she-said book, more specifically a claim made by Mingus Union School Board President Anita Glazar that County School Superintendent Tim Carter told her something to the effect that consolidation is a bad idea for the high school because Mingus would lose too much money from such a merger.

When news of that reached Carter, he fired off an email to Consolidation Committee Chairman Dan Mabery flatly denying he ever made such a statement.

“In my 12 and a half years in office, I have never taken a position on what amounts to a strictly ‘local control’ issue impacting a school district or a charter school and I do not plan to start now. It would be inappropriate, outside of my powers and duties, and unprofessional to do so. As a long standing ‘local control’ advocate, it is counter to my view of school district governance. Local decisions should be made or influenced by elected Governing Boards and by local voters, not by county, state, or federal officials,” Carter’s email stated.

He continued: “In this case, where a possible question could go to the voters, it would put me in a conflict of interest situation, serving as the ‘filing officer’ for school district elections. My job is to follow and implement the will of the voters, not to tell them what to think or what decisions to make.”

To give Glazar the benefit of the doubt, Carter said he “can only assume that comment must have come from a miscommunication or misinterpretation.”

In response, Glazar is standing by what she said. In a Friday email to The Verde Independent, Glazar said, “I asked him the question in a business setting.  I told him I was conflicted regarding the consolidation issue, but I had studied it and the facts defined Mingus would be financially harmed and supported programs jeopardized.  I asked him, basically, his thoughts.  He told me that since the last time consolidation was studied, the issues for this/next go at consolidation are different: No state incentive funding and Clarkdale/Jerome had no interest in consolidating.  Best for Mingus not to unify.

“Not a misinterpretation or miscommunication on my part.”

Glazar went on to say “you may recall that several years ago there was a quote in your paper from Tim Carter indicating that ‘consolidation would be a legal mess which would continue for years to come.’

The story to which Glazar was referring was from 2008 when the Arizona Legislature authorized the formation of a special committee to research and recommend that some school districts put the question to their voters as to whether they should be unified. The idea was to reduce the cost of administration by reducing the number of separate districts. The three school districts in the Upper Verde Valley – two of which govern one school each – were among those targeted in this state-mandated election.

Carter weighed in on the matter when the same state committee formalized the ballot language presented to Verde Valley voters.

“They did not seem to care about the details of how this would be implemented,” Carter said at the time. He was highly critical of the language of the two ballot questions relating to whether Mingus Union and Cottonwood-Oak Creek school districts would be unified. He said the ballot language was confusing, and could even cause the creation of a new high school district in the Clarkdale-Jerome school system.

“It will be a legal mess, and it will be a mess for a long time,” Carter said of the ballot language.

In the end, it did not matter as local voters rejected the measure, as did most of the rest of the communities in Arizona targeted by the same legislation. The failure of this consolidation effort, throughout Arizona, was generally regarded as backlash at the Arizona Legislature for trying to force an issue that should begin and end at the local level.

In this current dispute, Carter claims Glazar, in a public meeting, put words into his mouth that he never said.

Again, this is a classic “he-said, she-said” conflict.

It is interesting, however, that Glazar chose to defend her statements by claiming Carter in 2008 said “consolidation would be a legal mess which would continue for years to come.”

In this instance, she is clearly putting words into Carter’s mouth that are not accurate.

The “legal mess” Carter was referencing dealt with the ballot language being presented to voters in 2008.

That is hardly the same as saying consolidation in and of itself will create a legal mess.

As Carter himself reflects on this part of Upper Verde consolidation history, “In 2008 I was advising your readers about the unique features of this particular election, which was referred to voters by the Legislature. The statements I made were factual, and history has proven the legal concerns were valid. Not a single one of these passed, and the one which did initially, was overturned by a court almost a year later. There is nothing in this statement, where I was taking a side or telling the voters how to vote; just explaining the facts around the election. That is part of my job. There is also nothing from 2008 (a state-mandated election that neither the Boards or the voters requested) that is applicable to the current situation. I am not taking any position (pro or con) on the current situation. Mrs. Glazar can explain it any way she wants.”

As for Tim Carter, at some point he probably is going to be asked to address the consolidation committee. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that he will even be asked to serve as the group’s facilitator, mediator or consultant.

If that happens, he should politely decline, and he has very good legal and ethical reasons to say “no thank you” to such offers.

See, if this measure ever does show up on the ballot, Carter has an important and crucial role to play in providing voters with clarity on the issue.

As he explained to The Verde Independent last week, “If the governing boards or voters through a petition, actually called for an election, my office as required by statute would seek the needed information in conjunction with the County Attorney, Treasurer, and Assessor Offices and my staff and I would prepare several ‘official projections/estimates’ about the financial impact to the voters/property owners.”

In other words, in a completely objective and non-politicized process, Carter would do what our local consolidation committee is now trying to do in a highly charged emotional and politicized process.

Which is about as redundant as having three layers of school district administration for three school districts, two of which govern one school each.

Carter’s work – should consolidation make it to the ballot – doesn’t need to be tainted by Verde Valley politics.

A decision last week by the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District offers a textbook example of why school district consolidation is such a painful process.

As former Kingman school administrator Betsy Parker explained of the consolidation effort her community successfully navigated, “two of everything becomes one.”

That includes a lot of jobs.

That’s the painful part of school district consolidation. Who gets left behind in the streamlining of administrative positions?

Cottonwood-Oak Creek is currently going through its own in-house consolidation at the same time the community is weighing the merits of a C-OC/Mingus merger.

For C-OC, district enrollment has been on decline for several years. District-wide, there are 35 empty classrooms among Cottonwood-Oak Creek’s five campuses. Consolidation for Cottonwood-Oak Creek boils down to a reinvention of the former Cottonwood Elementary, Dr. Daniel Bright and Cottonwood Middle schools into two K-8 campuses.

That doesn’t mean, however, there will be a loss of jobs. King plans to retain all of his current principal positions, with a restructuring of administrative duties for all involved.

Call it pain-free consolidation.

A few unanswered questions on consolidation courtesy of County School Superintendent Tim Carter.

• A consolidated Mingus Union and Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District would take on the boundaries of the present C-OC District, but Clarkdale-Jerome voters still will participate in the consolidation vote as they are currently part of the Mingus Union district.

• Should consolidation be approved by voters, we then will have to go through a period of dissolution of the two existing districts as well as the consummation of the marriage of the new one. During this period, the Mingus board would continue to exist until the next regularly scheduled, or specially called, election to take care of Mingus business exclusively. The same would hold true for the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Board. But here is where it would get interesting. The two school boards would also meet as one – a 10-member board – to conduct the business of the new consolidated district until the next election when voters would decide on one 5-member school board.

• As for the combined 10-member school board, what will become of Mingus’ Anthony Lozano? Lozano lives in the Clarkdale-Jerome boundary overlap with the Mingus district. He will not be a resident, or qualified voter, in the newly created district, so will he be able to serve on the 10-member school board? “That is a great question and I have not heard that question before,” said Carter. “I would have to defer to the county attorney on that question.”

One definite constant in Upper Verde school district consolidation has been the adamant “No” position of the Clarkdale-Jerome School District. From the very beginnings of this current effort, the folks from Clarkdale-Jerome made it clear that they were not to be included in this movement.

Yet, because they are part of the Mingus Union School District, they still will vote in a consolidation election, should that actually occur.

That poses some interesting questions.

Would they vote No, mistakenly associating it with an effort to have the Clarkdale-Jerome District consolidated with Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek?

Would they vote No because they always say no to consolidation?

Would they vote No because they understand it means Clarkdale-Jerome will have to pay high school tuition to the new consolidated district?

Or, would they vote Yes because it means they will lose a layer of property tax obligation?

There are 2,461 voters in the Clarkdale-Jerome School District. If this is a close election, that group of voters will hold a lot of power in a movement for which they want no part.

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