Senate gives preliminary OK to school district unification committee
The state Senate on Monday gave preliminary approval to a bill that would renew discussion about school district consolidation after voters soundly rejected unification proposals in 2008.
HB 2219, authored by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, would create a 16-member committee to study unification and present potential legislation to the governor, Senate president, speaker of the House and secretary of state before next year.
Approval by the Senate Committee of the Whole sets up a final vote. The House has already approved the measure.
Fillmore said the measure could improve education, cut costs, raise teachers' salaries and allow schools to operate more efficiently in a tough economic time. The committee would be made up of stakeholders from big and small districts and counties.
After a commission created by the Legislature in 2007 recommended unification to then-Gov. Janet Napolitano, proposals to combine 76 elementary and high school districts around Arizona into 27 unified districts went on ballots in 2008. Voters approved just four outright, and three later failed after judges ruled with a strict interpretation of the wording in the original bill about the number of votes needed to pass the measures.
Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, opposed the bill, saying school districts have already been forced to hold elections to consider unification when they didn't ask for it.
He pushed unsuccessfully for a floor amendment that would give local school boards more say and remove the committee's requirement to propose legislation for next session.
"If they have the resources and if it looks like it's in the best interest of their school district, then they will go ahead and refer it to the ballot for voters to decide," Gallardo said.
The Arizona School Boards Association, which has strongly opposed unification in the past, is neutral on the bill, said Janice Palmer, director of governmental relations.
"We are OK with embarking on a study committee to look at various incentives and other ways of helping districts that want to locally unify or consolidate … but we are adamantly opposed to mandating unification," she said.
Sen. Rich Crandall, R-Mesa and chairman of the Senate Education Committee, said Fillmore's proposal takes a different approach than the 2008 group that called for unification all over the state.
"Times have changed," he said on the floor. "We have cut budgets those last three years so districts that were not open to consolidation may be at this time."