MPS Governing Board President Marcie Hutchinson, left, is one of several district officials questioning a GOP legislative proposal to split large school districts. Assistant MPS Superintendent Scott Thompson, right, said splitting up large school districts like Mesa would double or triple administration costs. (YouTube)

Arizona lawmakers are moving to require a public vote in the state’s largest school districts to determine whether they should be split up.

The measure, which passed the Arizona House on March 1, has left officials at Mesa Public Schools scratching their heads – and wondering where the move came from and what the benefits would be for students and taxpayers.

“Many blue-ribbon panels and several bills in the past have suggested schools are inefficient and could benefit from consolidation,” Assistant Superintendent Scott Thompson told the Tribune.

“Now we are talking about breaking up school districts and creating more administrative costs. This seems to be in direct conflict with many of the past conversations on this topic.”

“Mesa Public Schools is open and ready to have a conversation with anyone interested in how the district operates. We were not asked for input into this bill,” he said.

The bill, HB 2546, is being advanced by Rep. Rachel Jones, a first-term Republican lawmaker from Tucson who said many of her constituents are unhappy with the decisions being made by the Tucson Unified Governing Board.

She said they would be happier with a smaller district, which she believes would give them a greater voice and a board elected more from their own area versus the nearly 229 square miles that now covers the district.

But Jones’ desire to force a vote to split the district also would have a spillover effect: In crafting the measure to apply to districts of more than 35,000 students it also would mandate the same kind of vote in Mesa, which is even larger, as well as Chandler Unified.

That’s just fine with Rep. Justin Heap, R-Mesa.

“It is a massive beast of a school district,’’ he said when the measure was being debated in the House Committee on Municipal Oversight and Elections. 

Heap said Mesa Public Schools district’s racial and economic diversity makes it too large to ensure that parents get their voices heard.

“We all like local control,” she continued, “and I understand why people are reluctant to give up the small districts.”

But there are other things large districts can do to respond to issues brought up by Jones, MPS Governing Board President Marcie Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said that under state law, boards can implement a district system for electing board members, like the Mesa City Council has. This could ensure board members are seated from a wide area of the district.

“Geographically, we’re huge,” she said. “Some people have bantered about the idea of a districting in the Mesa Public Schools district, but that is something that’s a whisper. It’s just a ‘what if’ thing.”

She also said splitting up the district would “replicate administrative costs. Think about all the efficiencies we have. To me that does not make a lot of fiscal sense.”

As crafted, HB 2546 would also force an election in the Chandler Unified School District. And student growth in the Peoria, Gilbert and Deer Valley districts also could put them over that 35,000 figure and force that same mandated election.

Chandler Unified rapped the measure.

“We believe splitting up districts may cause a financial burden on the taxpayer,” said the district in a statement. “As good stewards of taxpayer funds, we do not agree with this.

“Our stakeholders and constituents have not asked for this. Additionally, as Arizona’s second largest school district, Chandler Unified remains one of the highest achieving districts in the state academically.

Despite that, all the House Republicans agreed with Jones, voting in favor of the mandated election. All Democrats were opposed.

Arizona law already allows an election to split a school district to be called if 10% of the residents of an area proposing to form a new district submit petitions. A similar margin is required from the area that would remain.

Jones, however, said that option isn’t enough.

“This came from concerned parents, concerned constituents, that that process is almost impossible to get the desired outcome,’’ she said during the House floor debate. 

And that desired outcome, said Jones, is a smaller district for her constituents – and one where board members would answer to those constituents.

“What this does is it gives power back to the parents to say, ‘Yes, we would like to be able to potentially choose if we want to split up the district or not,’" Jones continued. “This does give the power to the parents to say, ‘You know, this isn’t working.’ ‘’

Jones said that breaking up the district will empower not just parents but also the teachers and principals at individual schools.

Jones also claimed that splitting up TUSD “would be a wash, if not a money savings.”

But Thompson disagrees with that assessment.

“Mesa Public Schools is running $175 per student lower in administrative costs as compared to districts statewide,” he said, stating:

“Our peer group of larger school districts is running $167 per student lower in administrative costs as compared to districts statewide. How would creating a smaller district with more administration be efficient?”

Former MPS Board President Jenny Richardson also argued that there would be financial downsides to splitting up the district.

“There’s an economy to scale,” she said. “There’s some things we get because we have buying power. You would be duplicating a lot” if you divided the district.

A recently released analysis from the Arizona Auditor General reported that MPS spent 72% of its budget in classrooms compared to a state-wide average of 69%. 

One thing missing from HB 2546 as it was approved by the House are details of exactly how the breakup process would work.

What is clear at this point is that a vote would be required in Tucson, Mesa and Chandler schools, with residents deciding whether two – or three – is better than one.

But there is nothing at this point to say that residents would get maps to show exactly where the new lines would be drawn, something that would be required in an election sought by residents. 

What also is missing is how assets like school buses would be divided and how to deal with existing bond debt.

Jones told Capitol Media Services that much of that would be worked out in the Senate, where the measure now heads. But she declined to provide specifics.

This isn’t the first time that lawmakers have debated the question of what has been a perennial question at the Capitol of what is the ideal size of a school district.

As recently as 2019 lawmakers debated a measure moving in the opposite direction by forcing consolidation of the more than 200 school districts in the state as a method of saving money by avoiding duplication.

The measure failed amid opposition from people who wanted to keep things the way they were.

That question of how big is too big isn’t just being considered in the context of school districts. There was an effort at the Capitol to split Maricopa County into four separate counties.

There was a big difference, though: SB 1137 would have mandated a break-up.

It failed in a Senate vote last week.

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