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Split school districts now, board member advises
By Doug Snover

November 19, 2005

Tempe’s elementary and high school districts should begin the overdue process of breaking up the “dinosaur” that is Tempe Union High School District rather than wait for a state commission to look at redistricting statewide, longtime Tempe Union Board member Mary Frances Lewis says.

Lewis recently suggested the Tempe Union, Tempe Elementary and Kyrene school districts begin their own study of replacing the high school district with one or more new “unified” districts to oversee education from kindergarten through high school.

Under today’s system, the Tempe Elementary and Kyrene districts each educate students from kindergarten through eighth grade, then turn students over to the Tempe Union High School District to complete their education.

Nearly all of the freshman who enter Corona del Sol, Marcos de Niza, Desert Vista, Mountain Pointe, McClintock and Tempe high schools come through the Tempe or Kyrene elementary school systems.

Although the three districts are on friendly terms, the two elementary school districts operate independently of each other, and the high school district has no control over how the elementary school districts prepare students for high school.

That becomes a crucial issue now that Arizona requires students pass the Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) test to graduate from high school, Lewis said. “We have only four years” to prepare students to pass the AIMS test, she said.

“I think AIMS has brought this into the forefront a little more,” Lewis said of the need to unify the three Tempe districts.

“I think what AIMS did is cause a lot more questions about how we do things and why we do things a certain way.”

The Arizona School District Redistricting Commission held its first meeting on Nov. 10 to begin studying the possibility of combining common school districts with a union high school district to create unified districts in parts of the state where there are separate elementary and high school districts.

The goal is “to create unified school districts that offer instruction to students in programs for preschool children with disabilities and kindergarten programs and grades one through twelve,” according to a summary of the legislation that created the commission earlier this year.

The new state commission is to report its findings by the end of 2007.

“It’s going to be a long process,” said Art Harding, the Department of Education’s liaison to the commission.

“It’s going to start off a little bit slow” because the commission needs to collect information on the various types of school districts throughout the state, he added.

One potential mountain the new state commission must climb is what to do with the Phoenix Union High School District, which is facing the same issues as Tempe Union but on a much larger scale. There are 13 separate elementary school districts preparing students to enter Phoenix Union high schools, compared to two “feeder” districts in Tempe.

Lewis says she is a strong proponent of K-12 education, meaning that students remain under the auspices of a single district throughout their pubic school education. She called K-12 education “seamless” and noted that Arizona State University President Michael Crow espouses an even broader approach to combine education from pre-school through high school under a single district.

Lewis is not bound to the idea of a single high school district in Tempe, however.

The 162-square-mile Tempe Union district might be better served if it were broken into several smaller “unified” districts, Lewis said. One immediate benefit would be to have school administrators closer to the elementary, middle and high schools in their districts, she said.

Replacing Tempe Union with multiple unified districts is “a strong probability,” she said.

“I would call it a dinosaur,” she said of the current system of separate elementary school districts operating independently of the high school district.

“I believe it has exceeded its usefulness,” she said.

A recent university study, The Condition of School Administration in Arizona: 2005, found that “most indicators suggest that the state of public education in Arizona is dismal” and noted that unification might be a step toward improving things.

However, authors Arnold Danzig of Arizona State University, Walter Delecki of Northern Arizona University and David Quinn of the University of Arizona, predicted resistance to unification in some quarters.

“District Unification District unification has been a consideration at the state level for at least the past 30 years. Conversations about district unification would appear to be less about spending and more about curriculum alignment, communication among various levels of schooling, difficulties for children in various transition points, and the potential impact on student learning,” the study noted.

However, “the history of district consolidation and unification voting in the state does not indicate a great deal of local or community support for these plans,” the report said.

It questioned whether there would be savings by combining districts to avoid duplication of administrative costs.

“While some believe that district unification means lower administrative costs and higher quality education, there is little evidence to support these claims … [L]arger districts generally pay administrators more at all levels than do smaller districts,” the study noted.

“Yet, cost efficiency is not the sole criterion by which the benefits of district unification, or any other reform, can be measured. Quality educational experiences for children and service to families, schools, and communities offer equally important standards to consider,” the study concluded.

For more on the study, visit























































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