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Unification: Can it work?

By: Jonathan J. Cooper

Oct. 7, 2006

When two northwestern Arizona school districts merged in 2000 to create the Kingman Unified School District, eyes around the state watched closely.

It was the first modern attempt at school-district unification, a process long touted by some as a way to trim administrative costs and streamline curriculum. The project in Kingman, it was agreed, would serve as a test case.

Now, as the three Kyrene Corridor school districts face a state-mandated look at unification, it appears that much can be learned from Kingman.

In 2005, the legislature created the Arizona’s School District Redistricting Commission to review all of Arizona’s non-unified school districts and develop proposals for the best way to unify them.

So as districts statewide face the prospect of drastically changing their structure, all eyes are again on Kingman.

Unification there has been an “unparalleled success,” said Doris Goodale, a Kingman school board member who was tapped for the redistricting commission.

Among those successes was an initial reduction in administrative costs, Goodale said. Two superintendents became one. Two directors of curriculum became one.

Administrative costs later increased, however, as the staff was expanded to provide more services. So while the overall administrative costs didn’t significantly decrease, “you get more for your money because it’s not tied up in one person,” Goodale said.

In other words, the salary for a superintendent can be redirected to pay a psychologist and occupational therapist.

But Kyrene is not Kingman, and administrative costs here may actually increase with unification, board member Rae Waters said at a recent meeting.

“We have some of the lowest (administrative) costs in the state,” she said.

One of the biggest unification challenges Kingman faced, Goodale said, was integrating salary schedules between the districts.

“You will find that the state of Arizona has salary discrepancies between elementary and high school teachers,” Goodale said.

“Bringing our teachers up to some level of parity between the elementary and high school districts was absolutely our first objective.”

The Kyrene Corridor districts face the same issue.

Elementary teachers in Kyrene this year start at $32,456 and max out their salary at $61,856.

Tempe Union teachers this year start at $35,708 and can earn $68,241 at the highest levels of experience and education.

Tempe Elementary School District data was not available for this year, but teachers last school year started at $31,392. Their salaries maxed out at $69,815.

In combining two or more decades-old school districts, as in merging corporations, requires a melding of cultures and a mutual give-and-take that can leave some groups feeling spited.

“Sometimes there is jealousy from the elementary teachers to the high school,” Goodale said.

The high school is expensive to operate, sucking up a large budget share, she said. Much of the district-level administration, including the superintendent, came from the former high school district.

In the Kyrene Corridor, cultures within the community differ significantly across district lines.

The Kyrene district, for example, emphasizes community dialogue, seeking and receiving significant input from parents, Waters said.

“Tempe Union is more autocratic,” she said. “There’s not the opportunities for real input like there are in elementary schools.”

One of the often-touted benefits of unification is curriculum alignment.

Prior to its merger, the two Kingman districts had worked hard to align curriculum, Goodale said. But they didn’t maximize the benefits until unifying.

“(Curriculum alignment) absolutely increases when you become unified because you have a solid staff and everyone is on the same page,” she said.

The Kyrene Corridor school districts already work to align their curriculums and calendars. They cut costs by sharing legal, printing and other services.

The Kingman experience has a lot to offer to regions facing unification. Still, significant differences persist between the experiences of that rural town and the challenges that the urban Kyrene Corridor districts face.

The Kingman merger involved just two districts. Any merger here would likely involve three.

At the time, Kingman had just one high school. Tempe Union has six. One of them, Marcos de Niza, is fed by both the Kyrene and Tempe elementary districts.

Tax and financial considerations also come into play. The three districts have different levels of debt. The Tempe Elementary district is still under federal desegregation orders.

And with nearly all of Kyrene’s schools earning the top state label, “excelling,” the prospect of combining with Tempe Elementary’s numerous, less prestigious “performing”-labeled schools may not be palatable to some Kyrene residents who bought their homes because of Kyrene’s strong labels.

Even the names of schools can ruffle feathers in an urban area—a difficulty that Kingman never faced.

“In Kingman, we don’t name schools after people,” Goodale said. “In Phoenix, schools are having a little heartburn about names. People are really attached to the names of their schools, so there’s a lot of sensitivity to those identities.”

Voters have ultimate say on unification.  After redistricting commission releases its final unification proposal for the area, the affected districts will call an election to decide the outcome.

Unification skeptics are plentiful, and many doubt the legislature’s motives in mandating it, but Goodale said people should give it fair consideration.

“If you do it correctly, you do it with kids in mind and quality education as your goal, you’re going to be OK,” she said.


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