A state commission is recommending that the three school districts serving students in Tempe unify into one, despite repeated opposition from those districts.
In a 6-4 vote, with three members absent, the School District Redistricting Commission voted that Tempe Union, Tempe Elementary and Kyrene Elementary school districts should be combined into one K-12 district, which would serve an estimated 43,000 students.
The recommendation will need to be approved by Gov. Janet Napolitano, but if it is, voters in the three districts will have the chance to decide if they support the idea in the general election next November.
Kyrene governing board president Sue Knudson was the only speaker representing the three districts at the commission meeting Tuesday and she said the districts gave the idea of unification thousands of hours of thought and discussion before deciding it was not in their best interest.
“The only way to accomplish this would be for the state to give us millions in additional funding,” she said. “Eliminating a superintendent or two, or closing a district office will barely make a dent in our budget.”
Not all the governing board members oppose the idea of unification, she said, but none of them believe it is right at this time for these school districts.
“These districts are already doing a good job,” she said. “We all do work together to articulate our curriculum and make a smooth transition from elementary school to high school.”
She said the largest cost associated with unification was aligning teacher salary schedules, estimated by the districts to cost $8 million. Other costs, such as getting all of the districts to use the same computer software, are also an anticipated challenge.
But some commissioners disagreed that costs were an issue. Commissioner Jay Kaprosy said Tempe’s plan was one of the places where he believed significant savings could be made in order to make sure enough dollars were going into the classroom.
He said he didn’t believe the plan would pass at the polls, but that he was voting in favor of it so the community would have a chance to have its say.
Commissioner Joseph Thomas, a Mesa teacher, said he hadn’t seen any compelling reason for the districts to unify and questioned whether the commissioners had adequately listened to the school district’s reasons for opposition.
“Look at the votes we’ve taken so far today. We’ve gone against every district,” he said. “I’m beginning to lose faith in this process.”
He referenced a cost comparison spread sheet prepared by the Tempe school districts saying he saw issues there that merited further exploration.
Commission chairman Martin Shultz said he believes Thomas’s comments about Tempe “came close to impugning the intent of the commission” and that he thought the charge of the commission, as set forth by Senate Bill 1068, was to put forward the best unification plans they could and let the voters decide whether to adopt them.
“I know there’s a lot of emotion involved in this and I don’t begrudge anyone that,” he said following the meeting. “But these are large, urban cities and we have to think about what will be best in the future. I think we need to get organized a little better to prepare for that. And I think voters are beginning to see that efficiency is a factor in education finance.”
The commission has been meeting for close to two years and looked at 108 elementary districts and 15 union districts out of 227 districts in Arizona to determine which should be unified.
Commissioner Thomas Schoaf said he didn’t believe the commission spent enough time examining the merits of the Tempe plan.
“You have one district that spends significantly more dollars in the classroom,” he said, referencing the Kyrene district. “We’re assuming that culture will breed, but it may not breed, it may get stamped out.”
He agreed with Thomas that the plan deserved more analysis.
Tempe was not the only redistricting plan in Maricopa County 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” that would have more than 120,000 students. If approved by voters, it will be the largest school district in the state.
Due to lengthy discussions, the commission did not get through its agenda and has three more plans to discuss at a meeting planned for next Tuesday.