Sen. Sean Bowie, during the hearing on the merger bill, voiceed his concerns and opposition.

The two school districts serving Ahwatukee would be forced to become one in as little as five years under a bill that was abruptly revived last week and approved by the State Senate Appropriations Committee.

The bill, which now goes to the full Senate for a vote, would force Tempe Union and Kyrene school districts – along with 198 others in Arizona – to consolidate by 2024.

Tempe Elementary could conceivably be added to a Tempe Union-Kyrene consolidation – creating a district with more than 40,000 students.

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.''

The issue, Fillmore said, comes down to dollars and cents.

"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.''

Fillmore, who is a business owner, said it comes down to running the state education system more like that.

"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, saying his legislation would allocate 25 percent of whatever is saved for teacher salaries.

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 preferring 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 on Tuesday, 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, with the financial reward of consolidation and unification without going through that process.

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.

Tempe Union board members declined comment when asked by AFNM for a reaction.

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.”

He noted that the “large and diverse” Kyrene district runs 25 schools serving four cities and “offers smaller class sizes while still maintaining one of the lowest operating costs per-square-foot in the state – a ratio that may not hold if we were a larger, unified district.”

“Kyrene is also one of the highest-paying districts in Arizona for teacher salaries, which is critical to recruitment and retention, but we may not be able to maintain our steady growth in teacher pay if we consolidated,” he added.

Noting that 70 percent of Kyrene voters rejected a tri-district merger proposal in 2008, Myrick said “I believe Kyrene families would oppose a massive merger and that many would consider this bill a gimmick to reduce school funding under the mirage of ‘bigger is better.’”

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.”

Ironically, consolidation was addressed last August by Tempe Union Superintendent Kevin Mendivil and Kyrene Superintendent Jan Vesely during a forum sponsored by the Ahwatukee Foothills Chamber of Commerce.

Picking up on then state Rep. Jill Norgaard’s contention that some school districts in Arizona  should be consolidated to save millions of dollars in administrative costs, Mendivil stressed she specifically referred during a candidate debate to districts with only one or two schools and never mentioned Tempe Union and Kyrene.

Both superintendents said unifying the two districts would create an unwieldy bureaucracy under which kids could easily be overlooked and ignored.

But that doesn’t mean the two districts aren’t working together to create “virtual unification” by ensuring that courses of study in Kyrene’s elementary and middle schools equip students with the tools they need to succeed once they enter Tempe Union’s high schools, both Vesely and Mendivil said.

“Our thinking and planning and what we’re doing coincide perfectly with what Jan is doing in Kyrene,” Mendivil said, echoing Vesely’s praise for the support that parents and nonparents have given both school districts.

 Vesely noted that Kyrene and Tempe Union are sharing more data on student performance so that both districts can align their educational programs to give students a seamless transition from middle to high school.

“Our data sharing with Tempe Union will give us a chance to monitor our kids and ensure they are ready for high school learning,” said Vesely.

The latest state Auditor General’s report on school districts showed that in the last school year.

 Tempe Union’s per-pupil administrative costs were $908 – higher than the state average of $860 and the $804 spent by districts of similar size. Kyrene’s per-pupil administrative cost was $674 – well below the $796 spent by similar sized districts.

During the Senate hearing last week, Bowie noted that Arizona’s per pupil administrative costs were well below the national average of about $1,300.

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.

But Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said it is worth pursuing what Fillmore is proposing.

He said there is little evidence that the state and students are better served with more than 200 districts, citing the experience in Utah. That state has half as many districts, spends less per student and still has higher test scores.

Fillmore said consolidation will produce a net political benefit.

"After my bill is done and these schools are consolidated and they've saved that money, that argument can never be used by people like me as a Republican that the schools have too much money because the schools will have made the adjustments necessary,'' he said.

The measure now goes to the Senate where it faces an uncertain future.

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

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