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By Anonymous Mike, pseudonymously.

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Monday, June 9, 2008
The Elephant in the Classroom

If you have a hard time getting to sleep tonight, you may want to read the materials from the School District Redistricting Commission which forms the basis for this Fall's ballot initiative on reorganizing and consolidating Arizona's public school districts.

Wow that's way too much use of the term "districts" in one sentence.

It may be a snooze fest, but it will have a direct impact on many families across the state; it most certainly will have an impact on mine. While the election will be localized to the affected districts with ballot language specific to the given locale, some those that will be affected comprise the Phoenix Union High School District and its feeder schools. The proposal is to combine PUHSD and its 13 feeder districts into one large unified district of over 100,000 students.

I live in the Madison Elementary School District, regarded as one of the better districts in the state and that reputation has had a direct impact on property values in the area. People will move into the area to go to the school(s). It's also a fairly small district with 7 regular schools and a special academy; while at times I complain about the bureaucratic culture at the district office, I know that when push comes to shove I can get in to see the people I need to see. In short, the district is accessible and it's good. We don't have the nonsense you see in other districts such as Roosevelt or not so long ago in Wilson; we don't have the school board shenanigans you see in PUHSD. So why should I change? The fact is that the Phoenix unification plan has to win in every one of the 13 districts to be successful, if one votes no (say Madison) then it goes down to defeat and believe me it will go down to defeat in Madison.

Make no mistake, the Commission's task is massive and I don't envy them for it. Trying to deal with so many critical details such as tax rates, assumption of debt, district boundaries, sheesh. All that work and headache is being driven by two perceived benefits, saving money by spreading district administrative costs across more schools and creating a unified curriculum within the newly unified districts. The Commission believes that to solve those problems, the districts need to get larger.

First will creating larger districts save money on administrative costs, allowing more money to go into the classroom? Administrative costs make sense, to a point. After all the McNeal School District has 37 students; I have no idea what the staffing is down there but I would guess you have at least a principal and a secretary and probably a janitor. After all someone has to run the place and someone need to process the paperwork and someone needs to keep an eye ont he physical plant.

However we aren't talking about common knowledge, we're talking about an enormous effort to overhaul the K-12 system. We need to have some idea whether after we create the 100,000 student monstrosity of the Central Phoenix School District and condemn McNeal to the dust heap will this proposal actually lead to more money in the classroom and more importantly to better student results?

First no one has real numbers about projected savings. Maybe it's out there somewhere but I have read through newspaper articles, reports, and meeting minutes and no one is using a dollar figure to say what we'll save on administrative costs. In fact JLBC is reluctant given the number of possible scenarios involved to even provide an estimate on the overall fiscal impact.

The Auditor General's report notes that the last time large sums of money came free for instruction, after the passing of Prop 301 and the receipt of Indian gaming monies, the percentage of funds dedicated to the classroom held steady instead of increasing by the predicted percentage point. To the AG's report the Commission can have no answer, after all of they can do is propose new districts that they hope will save money, they can not direct how those new districts will actually spend that new-found money.

I'm willing to bet that the new districts will actually spend more money in the classroom, but not through any improvement in instruction but rather through boosting costs. High school teachers tend to be paid on a different and usually higher scale than elementary school teachers, so what happens when both sets of employees need to be paid off a single pay scale? The number that came from PUHSD alone is that such equalization across the new unified district would cost $54 million. In fact the Commission has suggested legislation which would equalize the funding formula in order to affect pay of elementary and high school teachers. In terms of Career Ladder programs, JLBC predicts an impact upwards of $40 million.

So when it comes to administrative cost savings, we have no idea what the dollar impact will be but we do have an idea that redrawing district maps would cost tens of millions of new dollars in teacher salaries. We know there is a hope and a prayer that districts will take any such administrative costs savings and plow it back into instruction, but recent history suggests otherwise.

What about the of the feature, that of curriculum? Well this post is too long already so I'll leave it to another day except to say ask this...

Are there disconnects between how well elementary schools have prepared incoming high school students and the expectations of those high schools? Is the solution to create huge unified districts, with the commensurate large bureaucracies, to establish an equal curriculum? Have such institutions ever, in their pursuit of equality, delivered excellence?