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Unification questions remain unanswered

By: Jonathan J. Cooper

Dec. 2, 2006

There were more questions than answers at a public informational meeting to discuss school district unification on Monday.

Logistical details about a possible unification, such as individual school boundaries and teacher salaries, are simply unknowable at this time, said governing board members from the Kyrene Elementary School District.

It was the second of three meetings organized by the Kyrene district to explain unification options, answer questions and get input from community members.

About 20 people attended the meeting, raising questions about high school boundaries, the merger of divergent district philosophies and the combination of varying tax structures.

Board members and district officials have asked the same questions, they said, but have gotten little information from the state commission brokering the changes.

“I don’t get the feeling that it’s necessarily their intention to resolve all those details,” said board member Sue Knudson. “We’re not going to get a huge amount of support or assistance. If it goes to a vote and it passes, it’s our job to figure it out.”

In 2005, the legislature created a state commission to develop plans for merging some of Arizona’s non-unified elementary and high school districts into unified kindergarten-through-12th grade districts.

There are two draft recommendations for the Kyrene Corridor school districts.

One would combine the Kyrene Elementary, Tempe Elementary and Tempe Union districts into one monster district. Officials call this plan the three-to-one option.

The other, referred to as the three-to-two option, would split the Tempe Union High School District in half along Guadalupe Road, giving three of its high schools to each elementary district.

Three-to-one option

The three-to-one option would create one of the state’s largest districts. Problems would stem from blending cultures, aligning curriculum, equalizing pay and standardizing priorities, board members said.

Kyrene would be underrepresented on the new district’s transition governing board, with only six of the 15 members living in Kyrene’s boundaries and elected by Kyrene voters.

Nine of the transition board’s members, a clear majority, would live in north Tempe and be more accustomed to the Tempe Elementary district’s policies. They may be more inclined to support policies from that district over Kyrene’s policies in the new district, said Ray Waters, a Kyrene board member.

“That’s just the political reality,” she said.

Board members would have to be “open to learning” about the programs and policies of other districts, said Rich Zawtocki, Kyrene board president.

“I like to think if you have a 15-member board you’re going to look at everyone you represent,” Zawtocki said.

Schools don’t have to be carbon-copy images of each other, he added.

Programs that work well in some schools can remain in those schools but not in others, he said.

One parent worried a marriage between the Kyrene and Tempe elementary districts would lower the district-wide average test score.

“That’s going to lower our home values,” said Debbie Coulter. “We specifically moved here for Corona del Sol High School and Kyrene.”

Another parent, Greg Patten, said he supports the three-to-one model because it would seem to have the largest reduction to administrative staff.

“I am puzzled by what I see as the overhead of having two separate districts,” he said.”

Patten doesn’t see the change saving money overall but rather reducing “overhead” to allocate more money to classrooms.

Three-to-two option

The three-to-two option would leave Kyrene’s boundaries intact, but risks overcrowding high schools in south Tempe and Ahwatukee while leaving excess capacity in north Tempe schools.

“There are enough issues in high school years without really crowding the kids,” said one parent. “I think that just exacerbates the issue.”

Under that plan, Kyrene’s existing northern boundary of Guadalupe Road would be unaffected.  The three high schools south of Guadalupe--Corona del Sol, Mountain Pointe and Desert Vista--would become Kyrene schools.

But several hundred Marcos de Niza High School students who live between Elliot and Guadalupe roads would be pushed into the boundaries for Corona, which is already at capacity.

Declining enrollment may eventually lessen the influx, but it would take decades, board members said.

The three-to-two option would irk the Tempe City Council, which drafted a letter recently requesting that any change keep their city in a single school district.

It helps foster the city’s identity as a whole if its children get unified instruction, council members said.

The three-to-two option would essentially leave Kyrene in tact but add high schools, one parent said.

“It gives us control of our kids’ education,” he said, because Kyrene’s board members are easily accessible.

The Arizona School District Redistricting Commission will release its preliminary proposal in April for public comment.  A final proposal will be released by the end of 2007 and voters will ultimately decide the result in a November 2008 election.

The next Kyrene community meeting will be Dec. 6 at 10 a.m. at the Ben Furlong Education Center, 8700 S. Kyrene Road, Tempe.


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