By Paul Maryniak and Howard Fischer, GSN Executive Editor and Capitol Media Serices
The East Valley’s public-school landscape would be significantly altered by 2024 if an Apache Junction legislator has his way.
In getting the Senate Appropriations Committee to approve his bill, Republican Rep. John Fillmore won a crucial first step in his goal of forcing elementary and high school districts to merge by that time and requiring smaller unified districts to examine mergers.
The bill not only would force the merger of Tempe Union, Tempe Elementary and Kyrene school districts, but could also pressure Higley Unified and Queen Creek Unified to consider consolidation.
Fillmore said consolidation of small districts in Arizona – some that have only one building – could save more than $500 million in administrative costs that could then be plowed into student support, teacher pay and other expenses.
“When people have said to me that schools have more money, I’ve always had the quick comeback (that) they have enough money,” he said. “What we need to do is have them spend it a little bit more wisely.”
As a business owner, Fillmore said it’s time for the state education system to be run like one.
“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.
He prepared his own study pegging the total savings at $506 million out of about $7.8 billion now spent each year in state and local funds for operation and maintenance.
Fillmore said this isn’t just a way of cutting state spending, stressing his legislation would allocate 25 percent of whatever is saved for teacher salaries.
The bill, which faces an uncertain future in the full Senate and still must go to the House, would force 198 districts to consolidate by 2024.
A merger of Tempe Elementary, Tempe Union and Kyrene would create a district with more than 40,000 students. Merging Queen Creek and Higley would create a district of about 19,000.
With Republican lawmakers saying too much money is wasted on duplication, the consolidations could occur without voter approval.
But HB 2139, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, does not stop there.
It would require every school board in the state to annually determine how much money could be saved by not just unification but also with consolidation with other adjacent districts.
In fact, it spells out that in the smaller population counties, those with just three supervisors, there could be no more than three school districts. Most counties with five supervisors could have up to seven districts; Maricopa County could have no more than 20.
Fillmore’s bill provides a carrot for governing boards that can come up with their own consolidation plans without taking it to voters, allowing them to spend more money than would otherwise be allowed for up to three years.
But balking appears not to be an option.
HB 2139 says if the governing boards don’t come up with a plan by June 30, 2022, to unify and consolidate, then the county school superintendent is directed to come up with a plan. And it spells out that any such plan “shall be executed without an election.”
What is bothering some of the foes – and even some of the supporters – is the mandate.
Ahwatukee Sen. Sean Bowie said voters in his area have made decisions about how they want their schools organized.
Bowie, whose district includes Tempe Union and Kyrene but also Chandler and Mesa unified districts, said voters in some areas prefer smaller districts versus huge unified districts.
“I would be concerned about circumventing voters and circumventing the taxpayers when they’ve clearly made decisions of whether they want to be unified or not unified,” Bowie said.
Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she has no problem with the idea of having school boards study the benefits of consolidation.
But Carter, who agreed to support the measure, said she won’t vote for it when it gets to the floor if the mandates remain.
Fillmore said that mandate is only partly true.
“In my bill, I’ve given them the opportunity to go out for a vote if they want to,” he said.
But Fillmore said that it’s going to take more than a simple nudge to get the desired results, saying that dealing with some districts is like “dealing with my employees or children.”
He pointed out there already are opportunities for school districts to unify and consolidate. And there even are some financial incentives for those who pursue that path.
“But they don’t,” he said.
Queen Creek officials declined comment and Higley did not return a request for comment.
But Kyrene board President Michael Myrick and board member John King, both Republicans, said that while consolidation made sense for some districts, it didn’t make sense for Kyrene and Tempe Union.
“While district consolidation may sound appealing on the surface,” Myrick said, “bigger isn’t necessarily better, and the potential savings are overstated when you begin to consider the costs of consolidation.”
King said there are too many little districts in Arizona that consist of three and even fewer schools, but that they are required by law to maintain an administrative infrastructure that is as costly as some districts with more schools.
“To some degree, consolidation needs to happen,” King said. “For a school district like ours – with the number of students we have – it doesn’t make sense. It would be disastrous.”
During the Senate hearing, Bowie noted that Arizona’s per pupil administrative costs were well below the national average of about $1,300.
The latest Arizona Auditor General’s report on school per-pupil spending said the statewide average per pupil cost of administration is $860. The per-pupil administrative cost in Higley is $875 and $845 in Queen Creek.
Efforts to force consolidation have been discussed for more than a decade.
In 2001, a Senate panel approved a measure creating an independent commission to consolidate the more than 200 school districts in the state to no more than 90. Those that refused would be denied state aid.
It died after drawing fire from officials from some smaller districts, who argued with the presumption that small is bad and wasteful.
Five years later, a special School District Redistricting Commission created by the legislature proposed at least forcing a vote in each district on consolidation. But that failed to produce the desired results.
Arizona school districts
Elementary districts: 97 with 434 schools.
High school districts: 15 with 70 schools.
Unified districts: 95 with 707 elementary schools, 143 high schools and 73 combined schools.
Accommodation districts: 8 with 5 elementary schools, 9 high schools and 7 combined schools.
– Source: Arizona Department of Education