A state commission charged with proposing approaches for combining elementary and high school districts to improve education while saving some tax money has lost its way.
The commission’s decision Tuesday to recommend a slew of massive school consolidations, including the creation of a Phoenix “mega-district,” indicates this body is buckling under the pressure of trying to pick out the best possible changes without enough support or reliable information from the affected districts. As a result, Tempe residents have every right to doubt that a proposal to unify two elementary districts with an affiliated high school district is in their best interest.
At one time, the redistricting commission appeared committed to a thoughtful, experience-driven strategy instead of simply going through the motions to mollify consolidation critics. Now, the commission seems to be pushing as many simplified consolidations as it can, regardless of the actual benefits, in the hope a few proposals will survive critical reviews by state lawmakers and the governor and eventual local elections.
When the Legislature established the redistricting commission in 2005, the goal was to eliminate overlapping districts and to create new ones that could reduce costs with less administration duplication and more volume buying. A focus on consolidating elementary districts with their companion high school districts also would address potential gaps in student curriculums that could cheat children of valuable knowledge and make it harder for them to reach benchmarks such as passing the AIMS test.
But the commission members also said research on school consolidation in other states shows districts that grow too big become overburdened by bureaucratic layers and red tape. So the commission identified an “ideal” maximum size for a unified district at around 30,000 students.
This understanding means a truly effective strategy would not just combine existing districts. In some cases, a high school district would need to be divided up and those parts matched with corresponding elementary districts to reach the appropriate economies of scale.
That’s why one alternative for Tempe was to create two unified districts separated by Guadalupe Road. This proposal has some legitimate criticism because of an imbalance in tax revenues between the richer south and less affluent north. So, in weighing various concerns, a single combined district at 43,000 students might be the better outcome.
On Tuesday, the commission abandoned this balanced approach to formally recommend just throwing together existing districts. That includes the ridiculous idea of a single Phoenix district with up to 120,000 students. Such a district would jump past Mesa Unified to become the largest district in the state.
It’s impossible to imagine that a majority of voters in each Phoenix elementary district would give up their local control to back a “mega-district.” And clouds from this highly unpalatable proposal are likely to taint the other recommendations, including what to do in Tempe.
The redistricting commission has at least one more opportunity next week to revisit its actions and to restore confidence that it’s striving to make difficult but correct choices, not rubber-stamping a predetermined agenda.