Tucson CitizenTucson Citizen

Some votes on unifying school districts seem confusing

PHOENIX – Four of 27 plans for unifying elementary and high school districts around Arizona are poised for approval, according to those involved in formulating the plans and a review of election returns.

Five other redistricting plans were winning, but those could be in doubt because voters also rejected the idea of splitting up high school districts to make the unification happen, said Art Harding, a member of the School District Redistricting Commission.

The 13-member commission recommended the unification plans, which faced voters Tuesday in 76 school districts.

Here’s what was certain Thursday: Unofficial returns showed that a plan to combine the Tolleson Unified High School District with five elementary districts was heading for approval, as were unification plans involving districts in Pinal, Pima and Cochise counties.

The situation was different with the three rural county plans, however, because those involved single elementary districts that were expanding to K-12.

The Palominas Elementary School District, based in the Cochise County community of Hereford, took a neutral stand on unification and now is planning to build a high school, said Lee Hager, the district’s superintendent.

Hager said his district might have difficulty finding high school math and science teachers and may use computer distance learning for certain subjects.

“I think that citizens have told us what they want, and we’re going to try to deliver on that,” Hager said. “To maintain the quality we have as a K-8 district is certainly our goal.”

The two other plans that were passing involved the Altar Valley Elementary School District southwest of Tucson and the Oracle Elementary School District.

Harding, the deputy associate superintendent of state government affairs at the Arizona Department of Education, said the redistricting commission has asked its attorneys for guidance on how to handle the five other plans that he said appeared to be winning.

Those plans, involving districts in Pinal, Mohave and Yuma counties, were receiving approval from voters in all districts involved. However, in at least one district affected by each plan, voters were rejecting a separate question about subdividing a high school district to make unification work.

Tracey Benson, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said the districts in question should not be unified because, while they agreed to the first question of unification they said no to subdividing the high school district.

“Our stance is that their ‘no’ vote defeats all the plans that involve unification,” she said.

Benson said too much remains uncertain for anyone to pin down the final outcome of the redistricting votes.

“I think as much as we want to be definitive right now, as confusing as the issue is, it’s going to take some time for everybody to say, ‘We know’ or ‘We don’t know,’ ” Benson said.

Harding said members of the commission are happy with the overall results.

“Even if it didn’t pass unification, you can look district to district at the ‘yes’ votes and see that people want unification,” Harding said. “If you look at the Phoenix metro area, almost half of the districts voted yes.”

Supporters said unification could provide efficiencies leading to more resources in classrooms. But the proposal was unpopular with school boards around the state.

Among other concerns, opponents cited reconciling differences in salaries in combining elementary and high school districts. They also complained that the state wasn’t promising funding to cover the cost of unifying districts.

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