Last fall, a state commission recommended that the three school districts serving students in Tempe unify into one, despite repeated opposition from many people living and working in those districts.
Now voters will have their chance to decide whether the schools in their area will be unified when the questions come to a vote on the ballot in November. If a plan is approved, the districts involved will be unified as of July 1, 2010, or the beginning of the 2010-11 school year.
The commission will hold a public forum this evening in Phoenix. People are invited to learn details of the various plans and ask questions of the commissioners involved in making the recommendations.
In the East Valley, the only school districts involved in the unification plans are the Tempe and Kyrene elementary districts and the Tempe Union High School District. In a 6-4 vote, with three members absent, the School District Redistricting Commission voted in November that the three districts should be combined into one K-12 district serving an estimated 43,000 students.
The commission met for about two years and looked at 108 elementary districts and 15 union districts out of Arizona's 227 districts to determine which should be unified.
Tempe was not the only Maricopa County redistricting plan that generated a long discussion and a split vote. The commission voted 6-3, with one member abstaining, to combine the 16 school districts in Phoenix into one "megadistrict" with more than 120,000 students.
If approved by voters, it will be the largest school district in the state. Commissioners in favor of the Tempe unification plan said it is one of the places where they believe significant savings could be achieved to make sure enough dollars go into the classroom. Commissioners against it said the group did not sufficiently analyze the details of the plan, particularly with regard to spending in the classroom, and that the commission should not rush the issue to the ballot.
Martin Shultz, commission chairman, has said throughout the process that said he believes the charge of the commission, as set forth by SB1068, was to put forward the best unification plans possible and let voters decide whether to adopt them.
Sue Knudson, Kyrene school board president, has spoken many times in public about her reasons for opposing the unification plan.
She helped work on an analysis of what merging the three districts would entail, which was presented to the commission before it made its recommendation. She said the only issue the district raised that was addressed by the commission was the need for more than seven months to implement the unification.
But the biggest obstacle she sees in the plan is that she believes it will cost millions of dollars to make all the changes and, so far, she said the committee has not made any recommendations for funding those changes.
The analysis the districts did compared such things as the differences in teacher salaries, technology and programs across the district and showed that it would take time and money to make them the same across the board.
"Our economies of scale are pretty good compared to other small districts in the state," said Jim Lemmon, Tempe Elementary board president. He said his district has worked during the past few years to become "leaner and meaner" administratively and to spend more money in the classroom.
He said all three of the districts in Tempe are more than 100 years old and have a history of working together.
Knudson said many of the people involved with the three Tempe districts went into talks about unification with open minds. But now, many people see too many unanswered questions, particularly with regard to funding, that make it harder to support.