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Rural Arizona to vote on unifying school districts

Olivia Rodriguez, a longtime school board member in the Stanfield Elementary School District in Pinal County, is joined by her grandchildren outside Stanfield Elementary School, the district's only school. With her, from left, are Austin Rodriguez, 8; Samantha Rodriguez, 3, and Michael Rodriguez, 13.

Olivia Rodriguez, a longtime school board member in the Stanfield Elementary School District in Pinal County, is joined by her grandchildren outside Stanfield Elementary School, the district's only school. With her, from left, are Austin Rodriguez, 8; Samantha Rodriguez, 3, and Michael Rodriguez, 13.

STANFIELD – Olivia Rodriguez graduated from Stanfield Elementary School in this farming and ranching community. Her four sons graduated from the school. Now three of her grandchildren go there.

It’s the only school in the Stanfield Elementary School District, though the district is expected to grow in coming years along with the rest of Pinal County.

Like Rodriguez did, the school’s 786 students move on to the Casa Grande Union High School District.

The arrangement works for Stanfield, said Rodriguez, president and longtime member of the school board.

“Our kids are doing just fine,” Rodriguez said.

But things could change in November, when voters decide whether to endorse a proposal to combine the Stanfield Elementary School District with a piece of the Casa Grande Union High School District.

It’s part of a larger plan that would create seven unified districts out of seven elementary school districts and two high school districts across Pinal County.

The 13-member School District Redistricting Commission, created by the Arizona Legislature, presented Gov. Janet Napolitano with a plan that will have voters in 76 school districts around Arizona deciding whether to create unified districts. If all of the plans are approved, it would create 27 unified districts instead.

Forty-two of the districts where voters are deciding are outside of Maricopa County and in rural areas. Besides Pinal and Maricopa, counties where voters are considering changes are Cochise, La Paz, Mohave, Pima, Santa Cruz, Yavapai and Yuma.

Gary Emanuel, an associate professor in educational leadership at Northern Arizona University, said many of the elementary districts considering unification were formed at the turn of the century, when less than 5 percent of the population attended school beyond the sixth grade or eighth grade.

“Elementary districts were formed first; some of the later districts formed unified districts,” he said. “High schools were a late-19th century idea.”

Proponents of the unification plans say combining districts can put more money toward instruction by reducing administrative costs. But opponents say it isn’t clear how the plans would affect the finances of districts.

Rodriguez said a key issue in Stanfield is who best can serve the needs of students. She said most residents agree that the district as currently structured is doing that well.

“The needs of kids in rural districts are different than they would be in bigger districts,” Rodriguez said.

Like most districts facing unification votes, the Stanfield Elementary School District and the Casa Grande Union High School District are urging voters to defeat the plan.

Nancy Pifer, superintendent of the Casa Grande Union High School District, which would join with three elementary districts, said combining districts would require money the state hasn’t provided.

Her concerns include how to deal with differing pay scales and tax rates in different districts.

She said her district already provides a seamless transition to high school for students from the various districts.

“Don’t get me wrong; we’re not perfect,” Pifer said.

“But we’re working on that, and we don’t need unification to do it.”

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COMBINATIONS

Here’s a quick look at how districts would go about combining if voters approve unification plans:

• The combining districts would need to implement plans by July 1, 2010.

• The combined school boards would determine tax rates, logistics of unification, the new names of districts and attendance boundaries.

• Rather than combining with high school districts, some elementary school districts with votes in November are considering expanding to K-12. These are in areas that are seeing rising attendance and are expected to need a new high school.

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