A state commission that convened more than a year ago to look at the possibility of combining some of Arizona’s 227 school districts is expected to begin voting today on which of those districts should be unified.
After countless hours of discussions, the commission members and many school districts still don’t agree on whether unifying is something that can be done within the timeline and budget constraints before them.
The School District Redistricting Commission is looking at 108 elementary districts and 15 union districts that could be unified, including plans to merge the Tempe Union High, Tempe Elementary and Kyrene Elementary districts into two districts or even a single one. The commission will decide whether to recommend to Gov. Janet Napolitano that a unification plan be placed on the ballot in November 2008.
The three school boards in Tempe do not want a plan to go to voters. The biggest issues they have with unification are the tight timeline to implement the change and uncertainty about what it would cost.
“It will be the largest unfunded mandate in the history of Arizona schools,” said Sue Knudson, president of the Kyrene Elementary School District’s governing board.
She said only major cuts to staff or programs would generate enough to pay for the changes.
With between 55 percent and 65 percent of these district’s budgets spent in the classroom, Knudson says aligning teacher salaries will be costly.
The three districts estimate it would take $8 million to bring lower-paid teachers in line with the higher-paid ones, based on current salaries in each district. And the availability of funds for the Career Ladder performance pay plan — an additional $3.9 million a year Kyrene teachers receive — is uncertain.
By statute, districts cannot reduce teacher salaries unless there are extreme circumstances, Knudson said, and so the districts are operating under the assumption that they will need to bring all salaries up to the level of the highest-paid teachers, most of whom are high school teachers.
Martin Shultz, chairman of the commission, said he supports the idea of aligning teacher salaries.
“It has always offended me to think that salary schedules for elementary teachers are substantially different from those of high school teachers, as if to suggest that a high school teacher is more valuable, which is not the case,” he said.
Shultz said claims about unification’s costs are unfounded and that, in theory, the reduced nonclassroom costs — money saved on salaries for administration and support staff — could be allocated to aligning teacher salaries and reducing class sizes.
“No school board sent us documentation of the costs, or the cost savings, for that matter,” he said. “We’ve had to do all those calculations ourselves.”
Shultz would not speculate about which, if either, plan would be supported for Tempe schools, saying the commission would go through each plan and vote on which to move forward.
“We’ve come to the point where we’ve done all the work that’s called for in the statutes,” he said.
“We have the facts in front of us. We know this is a tough process that causes uncertainty and concern, but our charge is to get the best unification plans to the voters.”