The economics of school unification: Will we really benefit?
By: Mark Moorehead
Sept 13, 2008

If you’re the parent of school-age children in south Tempe or west Chandler, you may be in store for some surprises if voters approve a school unification measure that will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The measure, if passed in its entirety, would combine the Kyrene, Tempe Union and Tempe Elementary school districts into one mega-district, a move that backers say will trim administrative costs and result in reduced taxation.

Opponents worry that the educational excellence on which Kyrene has built its reputation over the years, and which has attracted home buyers to the area, will be negatively impacted and real-estate values jeopardized.

To help formulate answers to some of these concerns, I asked Karin Smith, the Kyrene School District’s director of business services, a series of open-ended questions relating to the economics of combining local school districts.

Here are the questions and Smith’s responses to them:

Question: Would taxes, based on a new allocation of costs, really go down?
Answer: The projections we received show that the tax rates of Kyrene residents would increase while Tempe Elementary residents’ tax rates could decrease.

Q: Would the amount of per-pupil funding increase as a result of unification?
A: No, there would be no increase in per-pupil funding.   

Q: What changes would have to be accomplished to make unification work?    
A: One daunting and expensive infrastructure change would be the merging of three separate and different student information systems and human resource/financial management systems that are used for reporting to the state. While all three districts use state-approved systems, they come from different manufacturers. The cost for additional licenses, software, training and the conversion and migration of data to a new system is projected to be very costly. In addition, the two elementary districts use different computer platforms: Tempe Elementary uses a Mac platform, Kyrene uses a PC platform.

Q: Would funding the district now receives from government sources be affected in any way? 
A: Under unification, Title I federal funding potentially would end for five of six Kyrene schools that currently receive Title I grants. If one considers how Title I federal funds are distributed within a school district, this makes sense. 
Kyrene’s community poverty data would be combined with data from Tempe Elementary. You have to rank-order your schools. Because Kyrene schools don’t have as high of a percentage of students living in poverty, those dollars would be shifted to schools in north Tempe.
The elimination of Title I funding for the affected Kyrene Schools would have a significant impact those schools and their programs.

Q: Are administrative costs in the Kyrene District unusually high? 
A: Insofar as administrative costs are concerned, Kyrene School District has one of the lowest percentage rates in the state.  
Based on the state Auditor General’s 2007 report, Kyrene’s administrative cost is 7.3 percent whereas the average for Arizona is 9.4 percent.
According to the same report, in terms of the percentage of all school funding that actually ends up in the classroom, Kyrene spends 64 percent in the classroom compared to 58.3 percent for the average district in the state.

Q. Would Kyrene teachers be affected, and if so, how?
A: Teachers in the Kyrene School District definitely would be impacted by unification. The Kyrene district provides additional performance-based compensation to teachers through the Arizona Career Ladder Program, a performance-based compensation plan that provides incentives to teachers in 28 districts around the state who choose to make career advancements without leaving the classroom or the profession. 
Career Ladder plans are intended to increase student academic achievement by attracting and retaining talented teachers.
Teachers are recognized and compensated for their excellence and are motivated to perform at increasingly higher skill levels.
Kyrene receives approximately $4.2 million a year. With unification, funding for Kyrene’s Career Ladder program would be shared with teachers in the other two districts, which would significantly reduce the funding available for Kyrene teachers.

Q: Are there any advantages for teachers that would result from unification?
A: Unification could provide an upside for teachers in that the separate salary schedules for Tempe Elementary and Kyrene districts might be revised and the salaries of those teachers brought to the higher-level salaries currently paid teachers in the Tempe Union district.
The cost of such a change in the first year of unification would be $13 million.




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