August 23, 2004
Longtime Chandler resident Barbara Knox, 71, had an inside perspective on one of the East Valley’s rare school district mergers.
Her father taught at Chandler High School and her backyard neighbor was the superintendent in the early 1950s when the Chandler Elementary School District merged with Chandler High School to form the Chandler Unified School District.
Knox said Chandler always had one superintendent and one governing board for both school districts, so the unification seemed natural.
"The boundaries overlapped, so it was not a problem at all," she said.
Knox said a proposed merger between Gilbert and Higley unified school districts involves more complicated issues.
"People won’t give up their local control, and there’s pros and cons on both sides," she said.
Although community activists sometimes talk about school district mergers, few consolidation plans in the East Valley ever materialize.
Talk in Tempe about unifying Tempe Elementary, Kyrene Elementary and Tempe Union High school districts has never gone far.
"Nothing has ever formally reached a ballot that talked about unification or consolidation of the Tempe schools," Tempe Elementary spokesman Gary Aungst said.
Queen Creek Unified S chool District human resources director Kathleen Smith said the Queen Creek governing board once studied a merger with the Coolidge Unified School District, but discussions "never went anywhere."
The East Valley’s last merger that involved neighboring school districts without overlapping boundaries happened in Mesa about 60 years ago.
Alma, Jordan, Lehi and Mesa elementary school districts consolidated and then joined Mesa High School in 1946 to form the current boundaries for the Mesa Unified School District.
Mesa now is the state’s largest school district, with enrollment at about 75,000 students.
Retired Mesa educator David Eagleberger, who works part time in the district as director of community education, said he was too young to recall those mergers but said he understands they were successful because the superintendents involved reached a friendly agreement in advance about who would lead the new unified school district.
Harvey Taylor, who led the old high school district, became the first unified superintendent, and Rulon Shepherd, who led the combined elementary school district, started as an assistant.
Eagleberger said the success of the proposed merger in Gilbert and Higley would also hinge on the personalities involved.
"Back then, the people made the difference," Eagleberger said. "Today, the people are going to make the difference again."
Mergers or split-ups involving East Valley school districts:
1920: Tyler and Chandler elementary school districts merge
1946: Alma, Jordan, Lehi and Mesa elementary school districts merge and then unify with Mesa High School to form Mesa Unified School District (process formalized in 1976)
1950s: Chandler Elementary School District merges with Chandler High School to form Chandler Unified School District (process formalized about 1975)
1958: Apache Junction Unified School District separates from Combs Elementary School District
1977: Gilbert Elementary School District merges with Gilbert High School to form Gilbert Unified School District
2004: Gilbert and Higley unified school districts consider merger
SOURCE: Tribune research