PHOENIX — Saying too much money is wasted on duplication, state lawmakers took the first steps Tuesday to force consolidation of the more than 200 school districts in the state.
And the combinations could occur without voter approval.
The proposal by Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, would eliminate any separate elementary and high school districts that now exist. Instead, they automatically would become unified districts no later than July 1, 2024.
But HB 2139, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on a 6-3 party-line vote, does not stop there.
It would require every school board in the state to annually determine how much money could be saved by not just unification but also by consolidating with adjacent districts.
In fact, it spells out that in the smaller population counties, those with just three supervisors, there could be no more than three school districts. Most counties with five supervisors, such as Pima County, could have up to seven districts; Maricopa County could have no more than 20.
The measure now goes to the full Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.
Fillmore’s bill provides a carrot for governing boards that can come up with their own consolidation plans without taking it to voters, allowing them to spend more money than would otherwise be allowed for up to three years.
But balking appears not to be an option.
HB 2139 says if the governing boards don’t come up with a plan by June 30, 2022, to unify and consolidate, then the county school superintendent is directed to come up with a plan for the districts within the county. And it spells out that any such plan “shall be executed without an election.”
The issue, Fillmore said, comes down to money.
“When people have said to me that schools have more money, I’ve always had the quick comeback (that) they have enough money,” he said. “What we need to do is have them spend it a little bit more wisely.”
Fillmore, who is a business owner, said it comes down to running the state education system more like that.
“If we did some consolidation, got rid of the redundancy, duplication and excess waste in the districts, we could have the opportunity to save ... I believe hundreds of millions of dollars,” he said. In fact, he prepared his own study pegging the total savings at $506 million out of about $7.8 billion now spent each year in state and local funds for operation and maintenance.
Fillmore said his legislation would allocate 25 percent of whatever is saved for teacher salaries.
What is bothering some of the foes — and even some of the supporters — is the mandate.
Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Tempe, said voters in his area have made decisions about how they want their schools organized. He said there are some unified school districts as well as a high school district and several elementary districts, with voters in some areas preferring smaller districts versus huge unified districts.
“I would be concerned about circumventing voters and circumventing the taxpayers when they’ve clearly made decisions of whether they want to be unified or not unified,” Bowie said.
Sen. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek, said she has no problem with the idea of having school boards study the benefits of consolidation.
But Carter, who agreed to support the measure Tuesday, said she won’t vote for it when it gets to the floor if the mandates remain.
Fillmore said that mandate is only partly true.
“In my bill, I’ve given them the opportunity to go out for a vote if they want to,” he said, with the financial reward of consolidation and unification without going through that process.
But Fillmore said it’s going to take more than a simple nudge to get the desired results.
He pointed out there already are opportunities for school districts to unify and consolidate. And there even are some financial incentives for those who pursue that path.
“But they don’t,” he said.