Tempe Union High School District employees fear for their jobs. Parents and residents are frustrated with the lack of information. Tempe City Council members worry the community will be divided.
Plans to create unified school systems out of the Tempe and Kyrene elementary and Tempe Union High school districts have resulted in hundreds of questions and few answers, critics argue.
And almost everyone wants to know why the person who is supposed to represent their interests — Jay Blanchard — isn’t listening to them.
Blanchard, an education professor at Arizona State University and former Gilbert legislator, represents the Tempe area on the state School District Redistricting Commission — a group charged with developing plans to consolidate or unify Arizona school districts.
Ultimately, voters will decide in 2008 if the school districts will unify. It’s the commission’s job to finalize a plan.
Despite public testimony against it, Blanchard has recommended going forward with a proposal to split the Tempe Union district into two parts and create two unified school districts — one each on either side of Guadalupe Road.
Commission chairman Martin Shultz said Blanchard has good reasons for choosing this plan over another that would create one large school district encompassing all three districts.
“He didn’t want to advance the three-into-one (plan) because he knew the history and didn’t think it would be approved,” Shultz said.
Blanchard told the Tribune that he based his recommendation on discussions with former Kyrene Superintendent Brad Barrett, who was involved in unification talks in the area more than a decade ago.
Barrett, who now serves as superintendent of the Gilbert Unified School District, said he didn’t realize Blanchard would give so much weight to their discussions.
“I told him that ... three districts to two would be viable from the standpoint of economics, that it seemed to work real well with respect to financial structure, tax-wise and program-wise, and it was favored (10 years ago) because the two (elementary) districts had developed into two pretty different kinds of districts,” Barrett said.
Blanchard said he will base his recommendations for other counties on similar criteria. In addition to Tempe, he is overseeing three other counties that could see their school districts unified if approved by voters.
Councilwoman Onnie Shekerjian said she and other council members want answers.
“I’m a little bewildered and puzzled as to why Mr. Blanchard would choose a plan with no community support,” she said. “We are creating two districts — one of the ‘haves’ and one of the ‘have-nots.’”
More than 64 percent of students in the Tempe Elementary district come from homes with incomes low enough to qualify for the federal free and reduced-price lunch program. Only about 14 percent of students in the Kyrene district qualify.
Shekerjian contends that Blanchard should rely more heavily on input from community members than on decade-old opinions.
“You’re talking about 10-year-old material and 10-year-old information. A lot has changed in education in the state since then,” she said.
Shekerjian is frustrated that Blanchard has missed several commission meetings. She questions why he agreed to be on the panel in the first place.
Blanchard said he wanted to be on the commission for the same reason he ran for state superintendent of public instruction several years ago: He wants to improve public education. Blanchard lost the state schools chief election to Tom Horne.
“It’s a Solomonlike job,” Blanchard said of his role on the redistricting commission. “We’re dividing up the baby and it’s hard for everybody to be happy in the process, particularly the union high school districts.”
Tempe Union Superintendent Shirley Miles said “the staff was, of course, a little nervous” after Blanchard announced his recommendation. Of the three districts, Tempe Union would be the only one split up under Blanchard’s preferred plan; boundaries for the two elementary districts would largely stay intact.
Miles said she felt that her input was largely ignored.
Tempe’s council — which would prefer unifying the three districts into one system rather than two — plans to send another letter to the commission to reiterate its viewpoints, even though the commission won’t finalize a plan until April.
“In my opinion, it doesn’t serve any sense to divide up a district along Guadalupe Road,” said Councilman Ben Arredondo.
Blanchard said he read the council members’ original letter and thought they were asking for one Tempe school district that would leave out Ahwatukee Foothills, Guadalupe and parts of Chandler, which are now part of Kyrene, Tempe Elementary and Tempe Union.
He said he also hasn’t heard from Kyrene since he released his recommendation. He said he has contacted the district through e-mail and has requested information.
Next month, commissioners will try to come to a consensus on the issue. Shultz said he will push the commission to reconsider the option of combining all three districts into one large district of about 44,000 students.
“(Creating one large district) is a viable option because we have all the data points and compelling testimony from the school community and community leaders,” Shultz said. “They would prefer to pull all of the school districts together. They have some heartburn with dividing Tempe Union.”