Voters in the Gilbert and Higley school districts decided big isn’t necessarily better and rejected a consolidation measure on Tuesday. But an area of the East Valley where combining school districts would make a lot more sense is Tempe and west Chandler.
The issue there isn’t consolidation but unification. The Tempe and Kyrene elementary school districts overlap the Tempe Union High School District, resulting in a confusing patchwork of districts that probably should be unified into two — one offering K-12 education in Tempe and the other serving K-12 education in west Chandler.
While the proposed Gilbert and Higley consolidation would have produced one of the largest unified school districts in the state, Tempe and Kyrene unified districts would not be unwieldy in size. Those areas are rapidly approaching buildout, so growth isn’t the main challenge in the future; rather, it’s delivering the best possible education at a reasonable cost.
Educational quality is not sub-par in any of the three districts, but there’s always room for improvement. As newly elected TUHSD board member Mary Frances Lewis pointed out during her campaign, unification would pave the way for better alignment of elementary and high school curriculums.
Two unified school districts also would be more efficient than three overlapping districts. Administrative hierarchies, bus fleets, food service facilities and purchasing operations would be cut from three to two. That doesn’t necessarily mean a third of those budgets would be eliminated, but substantial savings would be realized.
It remains to be seen, of course, if Lewis’ unification challenge will take hold. As she pointed out in several Tribune columns that appeared during the campaign, the issue has risen and faded numerous times over the years. There are entrenched interests in each of the three districts, and the prospect of change can be intimidating.
Lewis claims the time is right. "This is not a time to protect ‘turf,’" she said in an Aug. 21 column. "This is a time to do what is best for all students. . . Students who are preparing to enter post-secondary institutions such as Arizona State University will be the beneficiaries."
So, almost certainly, will be the taxpayers.