Don’t Fit-Force School Consolidation

If It Don’t Fit Force It or Get a Bigger Hammer

For those parents and taxpayers who lament the loss of local control within their school district governance, it is really very simply  – what the legislature giveth, the legislature taketh away under the guise of “we know better” than your locally elected officials. No bill better typifies this, in my opinion, than HB2077 “schools; consolidation; unification” which stalled in the house but has now morphed into HB2139 – the mandated district unification/consolidation bill (although you won’t recognize it on any legislative agenda as the short title remains “candidate signs; prohibition; primary” but I digress). This is exactly because you, the underwriters of the education system, have chosen NOT to voluntarily invoke your statutory authority to unify/consolidate your local districts. Don’t get me wrong, not that a discussion of unification/consolidation is without merit but this will be mandated upon your community – not just the “what” but also the “how” – whether or not it is what YOU think is best for your child(ren)’s education or representation over your taxation.

Here are the top 10 reasons that HB2139 is a bad bill which will make terrible law.

10). The Feasibility Study…

is, quite frankly, unfeasible. The BusinesDictionary.com, in part, defines a feasibility study as to determine if a project is feasible within the estimated cost. Heck, we don’t even know if the feasibility studies assigned to the county superintendents of schools are feasible with the $4.5 M allocated statewide in HB2139. It strains credulity to believe that this amount will also cover the “costs associated with implementing the act” – meaning ALL the expenses incurred to actually unify/consolidate ALL of Arizona’s 200+ traditional school districts. Seriously? We don’t know the cost of the feasibility studies OR actual cost to implement unification/consolidation plans, nor do we have any viable estimates of anticipated savings to districts in relation to the expenses – more on that in a moment – therefore to deem $4.5 M to be adequate is premature and speculative at best, impracticable at worst.

HB2169 requires NINE distinct areas of feasibility research by each county superintendent – item #1 has 12 separate subsections such as examining each district’s special education and English language learner programs. In Maricopa that requires 55 separate studies of 12 distinct program/issues and that is just under item #1. Item #2 has 4 subsections of consideration and #5 includes 2 subsection mandates not to mention the additional 6 mandates in Section 4 of the bill – all within one year. Is all this truly a feasible, realistic expectation which will result in any viable, actionable guidance for districts? Time will tell – it always does.

The primary sponsor of the bill, Rep. Fillmore (R-LD16) has stated that the estimated “savings” will range from $100 -$500 million. But it begs the question based on what substantive data?  With all due respect and thanks to Rep. Fillmore for providing his analysis adding up district costs and applying an arbitrary percentage does not equate to, well, anything – not in the real world of financial, feasibility analysis.

9). Appropriations for the County’s Board of Supervisors (BOS); nothing to the districts.

The county BOS is appropriated ALL the funding under HB2139 in part to create the feasibility study, however this study cannot be accomplished without the participation of the districts.

School districts are appropriated ZERO funding to support the feasibility studies never mind developing and implementing actual plans.  And for those who don’t understand school finance – EVERYTHING undertaken and mandated costs money to implement – it is just a matter of who pays and from where the money comes.

The creation of these plans will require time and money for personnel, most likely IT resources, definitely legal services. School district lawyers must be gleefully rubbing their hands together in anticipation of the fortunes to be made consolidating contractual obligations such as teacher and vendor contracts, pending lawsuits, legal titles to properties, bond and override obligations but again I digress. Will the legislature fund the districts for these expenses? Will the legislature fund the new textbooks, equipment and technology necessary to unify/consolidate curriculum in these new districts? Presumably the salary schedule of the highest paying district in the plan will be adopted, will the legislature fund the difference? And these are just a few considerations that come immediately to mind but no doubt many, many more will arise. All this work and more will need to be paid for which raises the obvious questions: will the funding for this mandate be diverting even more money out of your child(ren)’s classroom OR might not statewide unification/consolidation cost more than it will ostensibly save? The answer to both is very possibly “yes.”

As an aside, the appropriation is by the population of the county with no rhyme, reason or relation to the current number of districts or student population of the county. Greenlee gets $250k to study unifying their existing 3 districts (1 elementary and 2 unified districts) and 1,600+ students into the maximum number allowable under the bill which is – 3 school districts (so $250k for – nothing?). Likewise Cochise receives the same amount to study unifying/consolidating 20 districts (10 elementary, 1 high schools and 9 unified districts) and 15,600+ students into the same 3 allowable districts. Maricopa gets $750K to study 55 districts (34 elementary, 6 high school and 15 unified) and 584k student while Pima gets the same funding to study 14 districts (3 elementary and 11 unified) and 118k students.

However HB 2139 does allow the county superintendents to “contract with another person or entity to conduct the feasibility study.” Call me cynical for thinking it more than likely that all $4.5M of the funding will end up in the pocket of some, yet to be determined – most likely “sole source” – “person or entity.” Instead how about offering funding for districts to voluntarily collaborate in creating a viable unification or consolidation plan and cut out the middlemen?

8). Requires unification AND consolidation of school districts be considered.

This is not “merely” combining elementary and high school into unified districts. Already unified districts must also evaluate consolidating with neighboring unified districts. Unification, consolidation OR unification AND consolidation makes for innumerable possibilities. Feeder elementary districts into their high school districts OR a unified district with one or more neighboring unified districts OR an elementary district into a neighboring unified district OR some elementary districts into their current high school district and others into a neighboring high school/unified district OR consolidating neighboring high school districts into one – with or without all their associated feeder elementary schools.

While the county superintendents set the parameters via the feasibility studies,  each governing board is required to develop its own plan out of these endless possibilities – “in cooperation with other school districts in that county.”  Each possible scenario would/should be examined by the district to determine the “best” option to be implemented in order to achieve the optimum savings. If the districts predetermine to collaborate only with certain other districts there is no guarantee that the most effect results will be achieved. If the point is efficiency – financial or otherwise – one cannot assume the most intuitive option, such as Glendale Union feeder schools unifying with Glendale Union, is necessarily the best option.

7). Creates nightmare governing boards.

HB 2169 mandates a “mechanism” by which all board members are entitled to serve out the remainder of their terms. And while the bill specifically cites elected members that may be a designation without a difference if, once appointed, an appointed member can be treated no differently than an elected member with regards to their term of office.

With or without appointed members, this will create huge school boards. Let’s look at a couple examples in Maricopa County. Glendale Union H.S. unified with its two feeder elementary districts, with 5 board members each, becomes a 15 member board. If Phoenix Union H.S. district unifies with its 13 feeder elementary districts, which have 3 or 5 board members each, that becomes a 66 member governing board. In neither case are the board members elected by the constituency of the new district; possibly having conflicting interests and potentially divided loyalties  but yet all entitled to retain their seats. What a great way to start off a new district.

6). Bigger government is not better government

Some of the worst performing school districts across our nation are the huge city-wide, county-wide districts. Why would we want to replicate such models? The larger a bureaucracy becomes the less responsive it and its elected officials become to the people it is intended to serve. The answer to bad government at a lower level is NEVER government at a higher level. The answer is electing school board members who truly represent your values AND who understand their sworn duties.

5). Uncertainty regarding existing legal liabilities, financial and contractual obligations.

HB2169 Sec 4, 5(a) requires examination of an “efficient transition” for “ASSIMILATION by the proposed unified school districts of the legal liabilities and other financial and contractual obligation of the school districts being combined…”  Yet Sec 4, 7 requires “mechanisms for PAYING legal liabilities, contractual obligations, capital debts and overrides…BEFORE consolidation” AND “remain the responsibility of the previously existing school district” – a legal entity which no longer exists and arguably no longer has taxing authority to support payment of these ongoing financial obligations – sounds to me like more money for the lawyers. So, will the taxpayers of the Peoria Unified School District, who have opposed the past two bonds the district referred to the ballot, be obligated to assume the debt of the bonds and overrides approved by the voters of the district(s) with which they consolidate or not? Time will tell.  And where will the money come from should districts be required to pay off these long-term debts in the short-term prior to consolidation?

4) Unification/Consolidation is already allowable under ARS 15-459.

While the history is spotty, at best, there have been numerous attempts at unification/consolidation over the years. In 2005 the legislature created the AZ School District Redistricting Commission which studied the issue for 3 years before bringing forward The School District Consolidation Act. It recommended and referred to the voters of the impacted districts consolidating 76 of Arizona’s 227 K-12 school districts into 27 districts. If I am not mistaken only about 4 of those consolidated districts were approved by their voters.

Under ARS 15-459 unification/consolidation can be brought to the voters at the request of the governing board of two or more districts. But if the boards refuse to do so then the electorate of the districts can force the issue through the petition process. Voluntary consolidation/unification has long been an option that districts voters have chosen not to exercise – so get a bigger hammer.

3) HB2169 tries to lockout the voters.

The bill incentivizes governing boards to do an end run around the very voters/taxpayers/constituents who will have to pay for these plans.

Governing boards that approve their plans WITHOUT taking it to the voters are rewarded for their effort with increases to their revenue control limit (spending) for 3 years of 7%, 5% and finally 3%.

How about offering this incentive to districts that successfully, voluntarily unify/consolidate their districts through the approval of their constituents?

2) The county plans WILL be imposed.

What if working “in cooperation” the districts don’t come to consensus on the same plan or if the governing boards within the county do not adopt a plan by the June 30, 2022 deadline (or June 30, 2023 IF the deadline is extended one year through the largess of their county superintendent)? Then the county superintendent “SHALL develop and publish a plan to unify, consolidate OR unify AND consolidate the school DISTRICTS within that county.” This language does not indicate a district by district plan for boards that are not in compliance but rather implies a one-size-fits-all plan for the county as a whole.  Will that county plan supersede or include the plans adopted by compliant boards?  In a perfect world I suppose. And while the county superintendents cannot extend the time allotted for districts to develop a plan beyond June 30, 2023 it “may shorten… the deadline” and arguably the county plan imposed without adequate time being allotted to district governing boards to develop their plan. Remember all that matters is that “each district in the state SHALL be a unified district on OR BEFORE July 1, 2024” regardless of, well, anything. And, hey, if it don’t fit – force it.

And the Number 1 reason why this is an awful idea – drum roll…

1). THE OUTCOME HAS BEEN PREDETERMINED.

Prior to any “feasibility studies” being conducted or district plans being created or actual costs/expenses being analyzed the outcome has already been mandated. Not only that “each school district in this state SHALL be a unified school district on or before July 1, 2024” but that counties with a 3 member BOS “may not have more than three school districts.” Counties with a 5 member BOS and population less than two million “may not have more than 7 school districts.” Counties with a 5 member BOS and population greater than 2 million “may not have more than 20 school districts.” This has all been predetermined without consideration of, well, anything. What if the feasibility studies determine there is actually nothing to be saved by forced unification/consolidation? Too bad – if the bill passes the legislature and the governor signs it – so it is written, so it is done.

Finally, I have always been and always will be an avid and vocal supporter of parental rights because God gives children to parents not to government bureaucracies no matter how well intended. However, I can’t help but notice the same concerns expressed – over the number of small districts, efficiency of operations, concern about administrative – particularly superintendent – salaries – that would try to force traditional public districts to unify/consolidate into mega districts does not appear to be of concern with regards to public charters of which more than 90% of the 400+ charter districts serve less than 1,000 students. That being the case, perhaps the “backpack funding” espoused by the AZ Chamber of Commerce and the governor should be part of the discussion/analysis for ALL schools – just saying, not advocating.

Given that we are now in the legislative “shenanigans” phase it is hard to determine whether HB2139 is a thing of the past or will suddenly be resuscitated this session. But if I were a bettin’ woman – which I’m not, but if I were – I’d be bettin’ if not this session, we will be seeing this again. However this is a bigger hammer that just won’t work as intended. But then the devil is always in the details and good intentions always pave the road.

 

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