Commentary: Consolidation moves one step closer to voter decision

In three prior elections, consolidation has 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.

It’s looking more certain with each passing day that Upper Verde voters once again will weigh in on the school district consolidation question.

Monday, Andy Groseta’s Committee for Better Upper Verde Valley Schools turned in petitions with 2,121 signatures – 600 more than what the law requires – to have the question placed on the November 2018 ballot.

Significant? Yes. Unprecedented? Definitely not.

We’ve been down this consolidation road many times in the past half-century and what’s happening now – and its eventual outcome – has been played out many times before since the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors and area school boards first appointed a survey team to study school district consolidation in 1952.

Assuming the petitions filed this week are determined legitimate and legal and an election officially is called, it 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 has 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, but 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 clearly reversed from what we saw 10 years ago. Mingus has the cold feet this time around.

Cottonwood-Oak Creek eagerly asked for the consolidation question to be placed on the November 2018 ballot. Mingus consistently rejected following suit.

That put the ball into the court of Groseta and his committee. Not only has the Committee for Better Upper Verde Valley Schools collected the necessary signatures to have the measure placed on the ballot, but along the way they were successful in getting existing state law amended to pave the way for its inclusion on the November ballot. Committee members contend these changes to state law removed many of the inherent roadblocks to consolidation, and have made it more palatable to voters.

By no means is it a certainty that the issue will be on the November ballot. The petitions will be heavily scrutinized. They could be subject to a legal challenge, the very thing the Mingus Union School Board will discuss in a special meeting today.

But should the process move forward, you can bet this will be the most debated and discussed issue on the November ballot among Verde Valley voters.

If the rhetoric you will hear in the coming months sounds familiar, there’s good reason.

We’ve been fighting over consolidation for more than 60 years.

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. Mingus Union School Board takes no action.

• 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

-- Verde Independent archives and Julie Larson historical research

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