Just when you think you’ve seen the last possible way the school district consolidation ball could bounce, it takes off in a completely new direction.
That’s what happened this week. While most Verde Valley legislative observers were focused on the progress of Senate Bill 1073 to accommodate plans for a merger of the Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union districts, a completely new consolidation plan was unveiled by Apache Junction Republican lawmaker Rep. John Fillmore. In a nutshell, Fillmore’s plan calls for a forced consolidation of more than 200 Arizona school districts that have overlapping boundaries, such as we have in the Upper Verde with Mingus, Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Clarkdale-Jerome.
Fillmore’s plan is not without precedent. The exact same thing happened this past year in Vermont, and just last month survived a legal challenge from 33 school districts in the Green Mountain State.
The predictable battle cries have already been sounded by those for and against Fillmore’s forced consolidation plan.
“When people have said to me that schools have more money, I’ve always had the quick comeback (that) they have enough money,’’ said Rep. Fillmore. “What we need to do is have them spend it a little bit more wisely … If we did some consolidation, got rid of the redundancy, duplication and excess waste in the districts, we could have the opportunity to save ... I believe hundreds of millions of dollars,’’ he said.
Opponents say consolidation always has been and always should be an issue of local determination. Further, they note that Arizona already has been down this road before and our history clearly shows voters prefer school district unification/consolidation be decided locally and not forced upon us by the state. Of particular note is an effort between 2005 and 2008 in which 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. 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.”
This new proposal from Rep. Fillmore has to be welcome news to those who have pushed for consolidation of the Mingus and Cottonwood-Oak Creek districts over the past two years. Let’s face it, when the ballot question for consolidation was decided in SB 1073, local hopes of a successful school district consolidation all but vanished. Three separate ballots with two questions each with all six questions requiring an affirmative vote individually from voters in each of the three districts rendered our local consolidation effort dead on arrival.
How far Rep. Fillmore’s measure will go remains to be seen. The guess here is that he has an uphill battle once the lobbying efforts of the Arizona School Boards Association and Arizona Education Association kick in.
Who cares if it was successful in Vermont; when you bring up school district consolidation in Arizona, you’ve just let a raging lion out of its cage.