Unification talks continue

School districts consider reasons for, against

Mingus Union High School District board members Anita Glazar and Lori Drake, from left, attended the May 2 Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District special meeting to discuss the pros and cons of district consolidation/unification. (Photo by Bill Helm)

Mingus Union High School District board members Anita Glazar and Lori Drake, from left, attended the May 2 Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District special meeting to discuss the pros and cons of district consolidation/unification. (Photo by Bill Helm)

COTTONWOOD – Though Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union each have new school superintendents starting July 1, their board members continue discussing the possibility of one day merging into one district.

Pros and cons of district unification/consolidation

COTTONWOOD – In a special study session Tuesday, board members from Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union school districts put together a list of pros and cons regarding the possible merger of their districts:

Pros:

Student Achievement #1 Priority

Best for students

Tax payer savings

District savings

-Estimated savings $660,000 in 2010

-More money to classroom

-More money for teachers

Single superintendent

More collaboration

One district rather than two in a small town

One district working together

Aligned policies, vision, mission & goals across the district

Students benefit from unified governance, curriculum, and extracurricular activities

Community is bringing this issue forth

No longer a disconnect in curriculum-aligned programs

Tech costs lower when students use their own devices

Aligned calendars

School identities = culture to make them unique

Together we can do better

Less teacher migration between districts

Less finger pointing more problem solving w/focus on solutions to addressing problems

Community responds when we work together (last election re: bond)

Cons:

Discrepancy in salary structure

-2010, $750,000 difference in salaries

More focus on HS rather than elementary

Lose focus on early intervention

Worry about teacher salaries and benefits

Wait until salaries are aligned district to district does not need to be done prior to unification

Fear of leaders to take risk

Concern for student guidance

State mandate last time it went to voters – voted down, local control

People would lose jobs

Change is scary

County does not pay for off-season elections

--Bill Helm

On May 2, the governing board for Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District met for an hour before their regularly scheduled meeting to discuss the pros and cons of unifying or consolidating with the Mingus Union district.

Cottonwood-Oak Creek’s district invited representatives from both Mingus Union and Clarkdale-Jerome school districts to the meeting, said Jason Finger, COCSD board president.

Though nobody from Clarkdale-Jerome attended the meeting, Mingus Union board members Anita Glazar and Lori Drake were in attendance.

Former Mingus Union school board member Andy Groseta, who has spoken at both Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union board meetings to urge the districts to consider a marriage of the districts, also was at the meeting, along with several people from his “working group [who were] in attendance showing strong support from the community,” Groseta said.

According to Groseta, Tuesday’s pre-meeting study session was a “very productive meeting where the board members shared their thoughts.”

Groseta also opined that it was “apparent to the audience that, generally speaking, the [Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District] board seemed to support consolidation/unification because it is what is best for students, and that student achievement would be increased.”

“That is the main reason why community leaders like myself and others are supporting these unification efforts,” Groseta said.

Pros and cons of consolidation

As president of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek board, it is Jason Finger’s responsibility to consider what is best for the district’s children.

“Student achievement,” Finger said, is the “biggest, most repeated reason” to consolidate or to unify the two districts.

Finger also said that he believes consolidation or unification would lead to “less teacher migration between districts.”

“COCSD frequently loses teachers to MUHSD and CJSD,” Finger said. “Those teachers would still be able to move to different grade levels, without experiencing the loss of an investment in training a teacher.”

Reasons against consolidation or unification include: teacher salary disparity between district, concern that the new district would focus more on high school issues than K-8 issues, and people could lose their jobs.

Anticipating a concern that individual campuses could lose their identity, Finger stated that each school “could still retain what makes each unique, but could operate under an aligned curriculum.”

Perception

Though incoming Mingus Union Superintendent Dr. Penny Hargrove has “not been physically involved in the conversations,” she stated that the list of pros and cons regarding unification or consolidation “appears to be perception, and not data driven.”

Discrepancy

According to research completed by Dr. Jack Keegan, interim superintendent at Mingus Union High School, one of the reasons against the merger – at least at this time – is a sizeable difference in salary structure between the two districts.

In 2010, that difference was about $750,000, according to the pros and cons list that came from the May 2 meeting. That discrepancy, according to Glazar, Mingus Union board president, is a “stumbling block.”

“Once [Cottonwood-Oak Creek] can get compensation to match their sister districts, I then don’t see a difference,” Glazar said. “I feel that they want unification, and that their reasons are altruistic. But it’s the compensation. It’s not equal. It’s not time to unify until it’s been equalized. Once they do that, I could be persuaded.”

Though Cottonwood-Oak Creek salaries are noticeably less than those of Mingus Union, Finger said it “shouldn’t be a reason” to not merge districts.

“Freeing up dollars to go into the classroom would be a reason for doing it,” Finger said. “The taxpayers wouldn’t see much difference. It’s about moving money into the classrooms.”

Any difference in salaries “would be decided by a new board of a new, unified district,” Finger also said.

Questions and answers

According to JoAnne Cook, the Cottonwood-Oak Creek board “is very focused on doing what is best for students.”

“We teach children to dream, be innovative, take risks, to be adaptable, not to fear change, and to work together to solve issues,” said Cook, a member of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek board. “Yet when it comes time for us to dream of the new opportunities we may be able to offer students by unifying, when it’s time for us to take on possible risks and challenges of unifying for a greater outcome/reward, when it comes time for us to willingly accept that change may be necessary to achieve greatness in student achievement, we are hesitant and fearful, allowing our focus to shift from the opportunities and possibilities that may exist and instead focus on the obstacles and negatives. We allow the what-ifs to paralyze us. What might be accomplished to better student achievement if we as leaders were to model the ability to dream, take risks, accept that change may be needed, and work together toward a common goal to offer the most excellent educational experience for all of our children and families in our community?”

According to Finger, the COCSD board’s consensus was that a merger is “worth exploring.”

“Is this something that’s better for the educational experience of the kids?” Finger asked. “It’s a better model for pushing student achievement. Two districts that are really good at what they’re doing could be even better.”

Moving forward

The next step, according to Finger, is to try to arrange a joint board meeting – and to invite representatives from Clarkdale-Jerome School District to participate.

Whether or not CJSD becomes part of a unification or consolidation exploration, Finger said that the overall population “doesn’t change [things] that much.”

-- Follow Bill Helm on Twitter @BillHelm42

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