Less than two years after Verde Valley voters rejected a referendum to unify three local school districts, boards for two of the three voted to try unification again, maybe as soon as the 2010-11 school year.
Supporters say the move would save $500,000 in maintenance and operation costs by the third year and lower tax rates 0.5 percent. Cost savings would be spent to improve classroom amenities and services.
Boards for Cottonwood-Oak Creek and Mingus Union High school districts each back a plan to pursue unification but wanted to hear more from constituents and school officials at a Town Hall Meeting in the new MUHS performance center Tuesday, Jan. 19.
“We’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars and spent decades studying this,” COCSD board member Eric Wyles said at his board’s Jan. 12 meeting. “This is about doing what’s right for the people we represent.”
The COCSD board voted unanimously to pursue unification.
Playing “catch up,” the MUHSD board voted Thursday, Jan. 14, 3-2 in favor, with board chairman John Tavasci and members Mike Mulcaire and Andy Grosetta in favor, James Ledbetter and Barbara Zenan opposed.
The move makes “good educational sense, business sense and common sense,” Tavasci said before the vote was taken.
“Are we going to catch up to what Cottonwood-Oak Creek has done?” Tavasci asked.
The votes start a ball rolling toward unification that could be stopped at any time before a second vote in May sends the question to Yavapai County Superintendent of Schools Tim Carter for official certification.
Before that happens, either board could pull the plug. For example, a lack of state funding to sustain raises for underpaid COCSD teachers could cause either board to change course.
Equalization of teacher salaries may be a key sticking point. On average, COCSD teachers make $10,000 less than their MUHSD counterparts. In many cases, the disparity is even greater.
Ariz. Sen. Steve Pierce [R-District 1] and Reps. Lucy Mason [R-District 1] and Andrew Tobin [R-District 1] notified the districts they will work to secure up to $1 million in special education funding to help equalize salaries as an inducement for the districts to unify.
Ledbetter told the MUHSD board Jan. 14 short-term funding from the Legislature, assuming it is approved, should be spent on tractors, not salary increases. In three years or less, the new unified district will find itself committed to paying higher salaries with no new funding to pay it, he said.
Grosetta disagreed, arguing “hope” and “luck” would play a role.
The District 1 delegation should succeed in securing the short-term funds and could start a movement to overhaul the state’s convoluted formula for funding schools, a formula which draws criticism from educators and legislators each year, Grosetta said.
“We need to get those savings into the classroom,” he said.
Another potential pitfall involves a possible civil rights dispute over the voting rights of members of the Yavapai-Apache Nation.
Because unification would mean Native American voters will represent a much smaller percentage of the total number of voters in the new, expanded district, the unification plan must also survive scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, Ledbetter, a Cottonwood lawyer, said.
Once Carter certifies the question, “there’s no turning back,” U’Ren told her board Jan. 12. The measure could go to voters as soon as May, she said.
Voters rejected a proposal to unify MUHSD, COCSD and Jerome-Clarkdale School District in 2008.