Pinal voters, educators weigh unifying districts - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

Pinal voters, educators weigh unifying districts

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Posted: Tuesday, October 7, 2008 7:13 pm | Updated: 10:45 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

STANFIELD - Olivia Rodriguez graduated from Stanfield Elementary School in this farming and ranching community. Her four sons graduated from the school. Now three of her grandchildren go there.

It's the only school in the Stanfield Elementary School District, though the district is expected to grow in coming years along with the rest of Pinal County. Like Rodriguez did, the school's 786 students will move on to the Casa Grande Union High School District.

The arrangement works for Stanfield, said Rodriguez, president and longtime member of the school board.

"Our kids are doing just fine," Rodriguez said.

But things could change in November, when voters decide whether to endorse a proposal to combine the Stanfield Elementary School District with a piece of the Casa Grande Union High School District. It's part of a larger plan that would create seven unified districts out of seven elementary school districts and two high school districts across Pinal County.

The 13-member School District Redistricting Commission, created by the Legislature, presented Gov. Janet Napolitano with a plan that will have voters in 76 school districts - including the Tempe Union High School District and Tempe and Kyrene elementary districts - around Arizona deciding whether to create unified districts. If all of the plans are approved, there would be 27 unified districts instead.

Forty-two of the districts where voters are deciding are outside Maricopa County and in rural areas. Besides Pinal and Maricopa, counties where voters are considering changes are Cochise, La Paz, Mohave, Pima, Santa Cruz, Yavapai and Yuma.

Gary Emanuel, an associate professor in educational leadership at Northern Arizona University, said many of the elementary districts considering unification were formed at the turn of the 20th century, when less than 5 percent of the population attended school beyond the sixth or eighth grade.

"Elementary districts were formed first; some of the later districts formed unified districts," he said. "High schools were a late 19th-century idea."

Proponents of the unification plans say combining districts can put more money toward instruction by reducing administrative costs, but opponents say it isn't clear how the plans would affect the finances of districts.

Like most districts facing unification votes, the Stanfield Elementary School District and the Casa Grande Union High School District are urging voters to defeat the plan.

Nancy Pifer, superintendent of the Casa Grande Union High School District, which would join with three elementary districts, said combining districts would require money the state hasn't provided. Her concerns include how to deal with differing pay scales and tax rates in different districts.

She said her district already provides a seamless transition to high school for students from the various districts. "Don't get me wrong; we're not perfect," Pifer said. "But we're working on that, and we don't need unification to do it."

Jay Blanchard, a member of the School District Redistricting Commission and an Arizona State University professor of psychology in education, said the biggest issue facing districts is fear of the unknown.

"These school districts have been around for 100-plus years, and most generations have an allegiance to their school district, an allegiance to their sports teams, an allegiance to their schools," Blanchard said. "And sometimes change can be scary."

But Chris Thomas, general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association, said voters should be concerned about how much unification could cost because the state hasn't committed money to help districts make it happen.

The Arizona School Boards Association opposes unification plans for which all school boards are against the change.

But in Stanfield, Olivia Rodriguez said, the issue is how to best serve the children. "We're not afraid of change. We want the best for our kids."

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