Editorial: Upper Verde school district consolidation debate finds its way to state capitol

Not since a citizen initiative in 1997 forced an election to consolidate the Upper Verde Valley’s three school districts into one has the community seen such serious discussion about the long-debated prospect of a marriage between the districts.

The current discussion was elevated to an entirely new level this week with the news that Andy Groseta’s pro-consolidation committee had orchestrated a proposed change in state law that smooths the path toward unification via a citizen petition effort.

For months, Groseta and company had come to the realization that if they were to get this issue in the hands of voters, they would have to take the initiative and launch a petition drive.

They discovered that was easier said than done. There are three different statues in Arizona law that address school district consolidation. The specific law that outlines the process for the kind of merger now being considered (Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus) was found to be cumbersome, over-burdened and so confusing, in fact, that one would need to hire an attorney just to craft the language to be written on the petition.

Not only that, existing law was such that any attempt to write the petition preface would likely be subject to a legal challenge.

That explains how the measure to amend this particular law ended up in front of the House Appropriations Committee this past week. The amended law, authored by District 6 State Sen. Sylvia Allen, who is also the chair of the Senate Education Committee, simplifies and closes the perceived loopholes in existing law. In addition, it specifically addresses many of the issues that have been a wedge in community consolidation discussions.

Should this measure bob and weave its way to both House and Senate approval, and gain favor with the governor, it likely will need to be done with an emergency clause that makes it effective immediately, or even retroactive to Jan. 1, 2018.

Should that happen – and that involves jumping through many political hoops – Groseta and company just might be able to get the consolidation question on the ballot in time for the November 2018 election. What’s more, they would be able to get it on the ballot with laws in place that make a Mingus Union-Cottonwood-Oak Creek merger more politically palatable at the local level, and at the same time leave Clarkdale-Jerome unharmed in the process.

There are a lot of “ifs” still on the table in this heated conversation about consolidation. One of the biggest is now “if” Mingus should decide to follow the Cottonwood-Oak Creek position of asking that this measure go before the voters, would a consolidation election move forward under existing law, or with the current changes being proposed down at the Capitol?

One thing is obvious, there are forces in play in the Upper Verde that are determined to get this question once again into the hands of voters, which ultimately is where it should be.

Ultimately, local voters need to answer the question of whether the Upper Verde’s education mission, and its taxpayers, are best served by having three school districts, two of which govern one school each.

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