A bill that could force the Pine, Tonto Basin and Young elementary school districts to merge with Payson has passed out of a key Senate committee.
HB 2139 would by July of 2024 force the consolidation of some 200 elementary and high school districts statewide. It would require small counties like Gila County to contain no more than three school districts.
Right now, Gila County has eight school districts — including four in the north.
Bill sponsor Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, claims the state could save $500 million on duplications and administrative costs by consolidating the hundreds of small elementary and separate high school districts statewide — most of them in rural areas like Payson.
However, Gila County Superintendent of Schools Roy Sandoval said the bill is “a poorly researched, poorly conceived, coercive idea that strips parents and rural communities and parents of local control while promising big dollar savings without providing any real details.”
The measure must still win approval of the full Senate and the House of Representatives, plus a signature by the governor.
In previous years, two other efforts to force widespread school district mergers both ran into sustained opposition by rural schools and never made it through the Legislature.
Still, the measure could force sweeping changes if it passes.
Sandoval said the bill would likely result in the creation of a single school district in northern Gila County.
Currently, Young, Tonto Basin and Pine-Strawberry all have elementary school districts with 100 students or less. Graduates then transfer to Payson High School, since Payson has a 2,400-student, K-12 unified district.
The state’s formula gives small school districts an enormous financial boost, to compensate for economies of scale and higher overhead costs.
The small districts get some $24,000 to $28,000 per student in total funding, according to the Arizona auditor general’s annual report on school spending.
Payson gets more like $9,000 per student.
The small districts all have their own administrators, school board and administrative staff. Most also have much higher than normal costs for transportation and facilities.
The students also often get higher test scores, thanks in part to small classes, lots of teacher contact and higher average teacher salaries. Pine and Tonto Basin are both A-rated districts. Young and Payson are both B-rated.
Sandoval noted that in south county, the Globe, Miami, San Carlos and Winkelman districts would have to consolidate into one or perhaps two districts.
“If this were to pass, Payson, Pine, Tonto Basin and Young would be consolidated in the north,” said Sandoval. “The governing boards would be dissolved and one board would be formed. Presumably, there would be an election for the new ‘Northern Gila County School District.’ Since Payson is the population center, let’s assume the district office will be in Payson. Let’s also assume that because of that, it has the majority vote on the new board. Now let’s say you live in Tonto (35 minutes from Payson), Pine or Young (1 hour 20 minutes from Payson), if you have a problem or want to engage in what the district is doing, take part in the budget process or attend a governing board meeting, you must travel to Payson. You will have very little say in textbook adoption, curriculum adoption, district constituent committees, etc. In practical application, you have been cut out of having significant input. You have lost local control,” Sandoval concluded.
If adopted, HB 2139 could force the wholesale changes without so much as a vote.
Smaller counties could only have three districts, larger counties with five supervisors could only have seven districts. Maricopa County could have no more than 20.
The bill would provide extra money for up to three years for districts that provide their own plan. Otherwise, the state would impose the terms of the merger.
Fillmore said the measure will save an estimated $500 million out of the $7.8 billion spent by the state’s public school districts, according to an account by Capitol Media Services. Fillmore calculated the potential savings on his own.
The Senate Appropriations Committee approved the measure on a 6-3 vote. The measure would require districts to annually calculate the saving of a merger. It’s unclear whether the merged districts would lose all of the money they had previously collected from the small schools funding formula, which gives Pine three or four times as much money per student as Payson.
SB 2139 specifies that if the 200 non-unified districts don’t come up with a consolidation or merger plan by June 30, 2022, the county schools superintendent would have to come up with a plan which would be imposed “without an election.”
Fillmore told Capitol Times the plan is in part a response to voter demands that lawmakers increase funding for one of the worst-funded public school systems in the country.
“When people said to me that schools should have more money, I’ve always had the quick comeback (that) they have enough money. What we need to do is have them spend it a little bit more wisely,” Fillmore told Capitol Media Services.
He said he would favor allocating 25 percent of the savings for teacher pay raises.
Previous state efforts to force the merger of the small, non-unified districts have floundered. In 2001, a Senate panel approved a bill to create an independent commission to consolidate the 200 districts into 90. That died without a Senate vote. In 2006, the Legislature created a School District Redistricting Commission designed to at least force voters in small districts to vote on a merger. That failed to produce any real results.
Sandoval said HB 2139 doesn’t consider the costs and benefits of mergers and urged voters to express their opposition.
“My advice is pick up your cell phone right now and call the following people to voice your opposition to HB 2139: Senators Sylvia Allen 602-926-5409, Paul Boyer 602-926-4173, and Kate McGee Brophy 602-926-4486,” said Sandoval.