Commentary: Public vote on school district consolidation takes another forward step

Upper Verde Valley voters are now one step closer to deciding school district consolidation.

Thursday, Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter announced the proposed marriage between Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union will be on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

This will mark the fourth time since 1959 that Upper Verde voters have gone to the polls to weigh in on consolidation.

In three prior elections, consolidation only gained voter favor once. In 1959, voters approved the creation of the Mingus Union School District, which merged three local high schools into one and left the elementary districts untouched.

The 1959 election also created a situation that has kept the consolidation question alive in the nearly 60 years since the Mingus Union District was established.

The Upper Verde has three school districts. No matter where you live in the Upper Verde, you pay two layers of property tax for the area’s three public school districts. Two of those school districts have one school each. Folks have been scratching that itch for decades, claiming administrative redundancies, a disconnected K-12 curriculum and duplicate transportation systems.

Especially since 1981, Upper Verde school district consolidation has played like a broken record. It wasn’t until March 10, 1998, that voters finally had an official say in the matter. The voters in both the Clarkdale-Jerome and Cottonwood-Oak Creek districts strongly rejected a measure that would have merged all three districts into one.

In 2001, the Mingus Union School Board killed a deal that would have allowed for a district merger that included three years’ worth of incentive money from the state.

In 2008, the Arizona Legislature forced the consolidation question on local voters, this time only for a Cottonwood-Oak Creek/Mingus merger. It too was rejected by voters, although the margins were much closer than they were in the 1998 vote. As summarized in an October 2008 Verde Independent editorial, “The people in the Upper Verde Valley need to be the ones who devise the framework for what school district unification will become, not the State of Arizona.”

Two years later, the two school boards seemed to be moving forward with some kind of attempt at unification until Cottonwood-Oak Creek got cold feet, citing no confidence in the Mingus Union High School administration.

That brings us to the present. During the past 18 months of the current consolidation roller coaster ride, the roles have been reversed from what we saw 10 years ago. Cottonwood-Oak Creek eagerly asked the consolidation question be placed on the November 2018 ballot. Mingus clearly opposes a merger with the elementary district.

Although this issue has been with us for decades, the process of educating voters about consolidation is far from complete. Mr. Carter’s office will accept, and publish, both pro and con statements from community members that meet statutory guidelines.

If successful, this consolidation vote would render the Clarkdale-Jerome School District as a completely independent district no longer overlapped with the Mingus district boundaries. It would eliminate the dual taxation that currently exists for Clarkdale-Jerome property owners, but it also would require Clarkdale-Jerome pay tuition for its high school students attending the new district. The wide-ranging impacts of that are being dutifully researched by CJ Superintendent Danny Brown and his staff. The conclusions reached by Clarkdale-Jerome officials as to the overall impacts consolidation will have on their school district will weigh heavily in this election.

The other wild card in the consolidation process involves a legal challenge to the validity of the election. This election marks the first of its kind in Arizona since Senate Bill 1254 was signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey. Last month, the Mingus School Board voted to retain the firm of Ballard Spahr and Gust Rosenfeld to explore legal options on the validity SB1254. As of Friday, District Superintendent Penny Hargrove said Mingus has taken no legal steps to challenge the election, nor has it spent district funds to “combat consolidation.”

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, though, and as Mr. Carter reminded earlier this week, “A court can always stop the process.”

Finding a legal loophole to block the election would not serve Mingus well in the court of public opinion. Whether MUHS wants to weather that public relations storm remains to be seen.

Short of a legal challenge, and a favorable ruling by a judge, it seems certain that Upper Verde voters once again will take up the consolidation question this November.

The question of consolidation will be in the hands of voters.

That’s the best place for this issue to be put to rest.

Upper Verde Valley school district consolidation history

• 1952: Yavapai County Board of Supervisors and area school boards appoint survey team to study consolidation

• 1953: Survey team brings back three recommendations: 1) consolidate existing districts, 2) establish union high school district, 3) or, leave districts as they stand. School boards vote to leave school districts in existing form.

• 1954: Yavapai County students from Sedona officially join the Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District.

• 1954: Oak Creek School in Cornville was annexed by Cottonwood Elementary and so it became Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District #6 (Source: Julie Larson Powerpoint)

• 1958: Willard School District #44, 1920- 1958, Bridgeport, Arizona. Willard School was built in the 1920s on 2.2 acres donated by United Verde Extension on UVX Road in Bridgeport. In 1958, Willard School was annexed into Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District. (Source: Julie Larson Powerpoint)

• 1959: Voters approve establishment of Mingus Union High School District, consolidating the former Cottonwood, Clarkdale and Jerome high schools into one union district with one high school to serve the entire Upper Verde Valley.

• Early 1981: Petitions with 229 Clarkdale-Jerome resident signatures and 1,212 Cottonwood-Oak Creek resident signatures are presented to both school boards, which in turn request the state prepare a consolidation study for both districts.

• October 1981: Cottonwood-Oak Creek/Verde Consolidation Study released, which addressed programs, financial advantages and disadvantages and the local political climate on such a school district merger.

• Late 1981: Both school boards decline to move forward with a consolidation election.

• Feb. 20, 1986: Local school district administrators call joint meeting to discuss consolidation. Mingus Union Board President Hamp Merrill characterized the gathering as “a meeting of anti-consolidation.”

• Aug. 16, 1990: Local school boards hold joint meeting to discuss continuity, social concerns and special needs students. Consolidation is added in the week prior to the meeting at the request of Cottonwood-Oak Creek board members, who were in the process of hiring a new superintendent.

• 1992: Sedona Unified School District was formed, splitting off from the Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union school districts.

• June 9, 1992: Cottonwood-Oak Creek Board, after ending contract school bus service, has joint meeting with Mingus to discuss jointly operating transportation services. No decision was reached. School boards agree to meet again in 1993 with Clarkdale-Jerome to renew transportation services discussion and also discuss whether additional funding, available through consolidation, would assist with the transportation questions.

• Oct. 22, 1992: A meeting is called to discuss consolidation issue among potential new board members and current existing board members. The meeting is canceled after a candidate forum is scheduled on the same date.

• Jan. 28, 1993: Joint board meeting on consolidation with Mingus, Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Clarkdale-Jerome ends with no action taken.

• Oct. 8, 1997: Consolidation talks begin again at the request of a citizens group interested in seeing the consolidation question finally put to a public vote.

• Dec. 12, 1997: Yavapai County Recorder’s Office confirms the success of a consolidation election petition drive, and a March 10, 1998 election is called.

• March 10, 1998: Upper Verde school district consolidation is soundly rejected by voters: 85 percent of the voters in the Clarkdale-Jerome District say no, and 59 percent of the voters in the Cottonwood-Oak Creek District likewise voted no.

• March 12, 2001: Consolidation discussions are renewed after special state legislation is approved to provide incentive money for districts that choose to consolidation, and to allow consolidation to take place by vote of the respective school boards. The Mingus Union School Board rejected the measure by a 4-0 vote.

• 2005 to 2008: The Arizona Legislature authorized the formation of a special committee to research and recommend that 78 Arizona districts put the question to their voters as to whether they should be unified. The three school districts in the Upper Verde Valley were among those targeted in this state-mandated election. The Clarkdale-Jerome District was later removed, although its voters still cast ballots as part of the Mingus Union District. Ultimately, local voters rejected the consolidation question, as did most every other school district in Arizona, although the margins were much closer than they were in the 1998 vote. As summarized in an October 2008 Verde Independent editorial, “The people in the Upper Verde Valley need to be the ones who devise the framework for what school district unification will become, not the State of Arizona.”

• January 2010: Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union school boards agree to a new round of talks on school district unification.

• Jan. 15, 2010: In a 3-2 split vote, the Mingus Union School Board voted Thursday night to form a resolution to proceed with the first steps toward unification with Cottonwood-Oak Creek School District. The C-OC board passed a similar resolution during its scheduled meeting Tuesday night. There has been a general consensus between both boards that unification likely won’t happen without financial aid from the state. MUHS Board President John Tavasci Jr. said, “Moving forward with unification makes good sense.”

• July 14, 2010: Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Board votes 4-1 to withdraw from consolidation talks with Mingus, citing no confidence in the Mingus Union High School administration.

• December 2012 – Warner Report (58 pages) on Upper Verde School District consolidation released.

• January 2017: Former Mingus Union School Board President Andy Groseta announces formation of a grass roots committee to consolidate the Upper Verde Valley’s three school districts. The Clarkdale-Jerome School Board quickly announced it was not interested in being part of such a merger. The Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union school boards agree to the formation of a special committee to establish a list of pros and cons on school district consolidation.

• Dec. 7, 2017: Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Board requests county school superintendent call a November 2018 election for the consolidation of the Mingus Union and Cottonwood-Oak Creek School Districts. In June 2018, the Mingus Union School Board unanimously said that consolidating with Cottonwood-Oak Creek was not in the best interest of the students the district serves.

• May 1, 2018: Consolidation Study Committee members cannot agree on closing statement. Committee dissolves.

• May 17, 2018: Gov. Doug Ducey signs SB1254, which amends Arizona law on the manner in which school districts can be consolidated.

• June 4, 2018: Committee for Better Upper Verde Valley Schools – 2018 turns in petitions with 2,312 signatures to Yavapai County School Superintendent’s Office to have the consolidation question placed on the November 2018 ballot

• July 5, 2018: Yavapai County School Superintendent Tim Carter confirms the proposed Mingus Union/Cottonwood-Oak Creek consolidation election will be on the Nov. 6 General Election ballot.

-- Verde Independent archives and Julie Larson historical research

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