Amid promises of savings, schools fear loss of identity
Arizona Republic
Jul. 15, 2007

 Pat Kossan

Parents in the Madison School District fear their elementary schools could unravel.

They look at a proposal to combine their central Phoenix district with three poorer ones and see a threat to years of hard work to keep the district excelling and preparing kids for top high schools and universities.

South of there, the parents of the Wilson School District feel the same.
They fear that combining with wealthier Madison and other districts would threaten their power to create a safe haven for struggling, mostly minority kids and prepare them to finish high school.

The feelings represent one of the biggest hurdles the state faces as it refines a proposal to combine districts across the state before sending the plan to voters next year. Rich districts unifying with poor ones see a dilution of their quality. Poor districts unifying with rich ones see a loss of control.

Redistricting is supposed to be about eliminating waste and saving money for the classroom. But board members, teachers and parents say much more is at stake.

They are speaking in a nearly united voice, and the message is: Leave us alone.

"Once we're mixed in with a bigger group, the benefits aren't going to be as they are now," said Wilson mother and school secretary Alicia Guzman.
"Somehow, we're going to get neglected."

Smaller districts, whether rich or poor, view themselves as unique and elite learning centers. Most of the kids in each school are of the same ethnicity, with similar family incomes. The adults talk the same language, and teachers zero in on the kids' needs, be it learning English or accelerated literature.

But while parents see community roots, state officials see financial and educational inefficiencies.

A commission established by lawmakers drew up plans to unify 92 elementary and high school districts into fewer and new K-12 districts.

The goals are added money for the classroom and linked high school and elementary curriculums.

"It's the job of the School District Redistricting Commission to step back and look at the longer, larger view," said Martin Shultz, a Pinnacle West Capital Corp. executive who is chairman of the commission. Shultz said he respects the hard work and achievements of small districts, but in the end they aren't efficient enough to get the maximum amount of money into the classroom and raise the sophistication of learning.

"It's about the classroom teacher salary, the principal as instructional leader, the size of the classroom, the supply of teaching tools," Shultz said.

The plan to merge the Madison, Wilson, Creighton and Balsz districts embodies the tensions in districts statewide that would be affected.

The four districts would unify with two high schools, Camelback and North, splintered off from the Phoenix Union High School District. Its working title is "District E." Three of the four elementary district boards oppose the change; the other is debating the issue.

Quality concerns

Madison is a proven brand name, with a reputation for quality that draws home buyers to central Phoenix.

The state has labeled six of its seven schools as excelling or highly performing. The median home price in the district is $300,000. About 44 percent of its students are poor enough to be eligible for free or reduced-cost lunches, which is half the percent eligible in the other three districts.

Many Madison parents are fussy about their kids' classmates, teachers and school's reputation. They clamor to get their kids into gifted programs and enrichment programs.

Madison mother Susan Levy said the district has parents who send their kids to school already reading and who have time and talent to volunteer.
Graduates are prepared to enter accelerated programs in high schools.

Schools to the south also have parents who care, said Levy, but about different things.

"A lot of these parents are in dual working families, and they don't speak English," Levy said. "They have different concerns."

Levy understands there are good arguments for combining the districts.

"But the issues to face in certain areas are different than others," Levy said. "I'm not for redistricting."

A question of control
On the south end of "District E" is the Wilson elementary district, where
the median home price is about $200,000 and 94 percent of its students are
eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. Twenty percent of its families
float among homeless shelters and hotels.

Despite its small size, Wilson has federal grants and extra property-tax
money that allow every student to sit at a desk with a computer. No family
goes without food and clothing. If a kid doesn't show up for class, district
officials go looking for him or her. The district provides its parents jobs,
classes and a place for community meetings. Its academics are improving,
with the state labeling its two schools performing plus. Wilson officials
brag that 75 to 80 percent of eighth-grade graduates go on to finish high
school, up from about 5 percent 20 years ago.

Wilson fears losing control over how a larger district would spend its
money. Its small community and low number of voters would not give it much
of a voice on any newly elected board, parents and educators say. Wilson
educators look at existing large K-12 districts and see differences, real or
not, in resources for schools in high-end neighborhoods and those in poorer
ones. Poor parents don't have time to volunteer.

"The reality is: Money is power," Wilson Principal Cindy Campton said. "I
can't figure out why it would be a positive thing for our community. . . .
We'd lose."

Finding momentum
Creighton is the largest of the districts and is struggling academically.

In 2006, the state labeled most of its nine schools performing; two reached
performing plus and one slipped to underperforming. Language acquisition is
its mission, not only for English-learners but for hundreds of poor kids
whose parents are not readers and who come to school years behind in

It's taken a while, but district officials say they are finally a cohesive
team of board members, administrators and teachers headed in one direction:
up. Now, they fear the focus will be blown apart by the confusing,
time-consuming effort to merge districts. They fear the focus on learning
will be drawn to budget issues, disappearing jobs, new salaries, benefits,
leave and substitute policies. Just the talk of merger is disrupting
long-term planning.

"Think of what it's going to take to combine even two districts with a
different mission and view and slightly different populations, and you start
to see everyone is going to lose focus," said Creighton board member Suzanne
Schweiger-Nitchals. "By 2014, we have to have 100 percent of our children
doing our (grade-level) standards. We can't stop and do something else."

So what if the merger fails and Creighton is still struggling three years
from now?

The solution is more school funding, not unification, Schweiger-Nitchals
said. A new coat of paint doesn't repair the wood underneath.

Still debating
Balsz elementary includes a slice of south Scottsdale, a homeless shelter
and 200 new students from Somalia.

All four of the districts, including Balsz, are losing students as
commercial development replaces homes and parents choose charter or private
schools. Family-filled apartments and trailer parks are giving way to
high-end condos catering to singles or retirees.

Balsz is the only elementary district still debating the issue.

Balsz board member Susan Bitter Smith thinks "District E" is a good idea,
saying it makes sense to join forces, pool money and offer parents more
programs to all students.

Bitter Smith also is a newly appointed member of the state commission
assigned to create the unification plan. She understands that parents are
happy with schools that reflect their families and their children's needs
and thinks that will remain under unification.

"Unification doesn't eliminate that operationally," Bitter Smith said. "What
it eliminates is duplication of monies being spent at the upper levels."
That includes reducing four superintendents and four curriculum directors,
four transportation yards and four food-service operations to one of each.

Her fellow board member Sharon Kracht feels differently. She fears a loss of
teamwork and neighborhood control. A combined district would change Balsz
from a five-school district of 3,500 K-8 students to part of a 25-school
district of 22,500 K-12 students.

"The picture is too big to reach every little school," she said. "That's way
too big, and you're just going to be lost in the crowd."

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