Male high school student standing outside school bus door

"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."

Saying too much money is wasted on duplication, state lawmakers took the first steps earlier this month to force consolidation of the more than 200 school districts in the state – some of which are in the West Valley.

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 with consolidation with other 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 could have up to seven districts; Maricopa County could have no more than 20.

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. And it spells out that any such plan “shall be executed without an election.”

The issue, Fillmore said, comes down to dollars and cents.

“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 this isn’t just a way of cutting state spending, saying his legislation would allocate 25% 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 on April 2 said she won’t vote for it when it gets to the floor if the mandates remain.

Noting the longevity of discussions on school consolidation, Agua Fria Union High School District Superintendent Dennis Runyan acknowledged the importance of studying costs and feasibility before jumping to conclusions regarding potential savings.

“Some challenges include servicing previously approved bond dollars across districts; equalization of salaries, which can be expensive; and looking at combining school boards, which impacts local control,” Runyan said.

“The issue often comes down to community wishes and local control issues,” he added. “The vertical articulation of curriculum is often enhanced but savings are not a guarantee due to already limited school budgets in Arizona when compared to national norms.”

And other solutions could be offered, he noted.

“A few services could be coordinated even without consolidation, such as transportation and food services,” he explained.

But time is still needed, he said.

“From my experiences with researching these options it is a multi-year process and requires everyone to be on board politically and professionally,” he said.

Fillmore said the 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 that 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.

Efforts to force the issue have been discussed for more than a decade.

In 2001, for example, a Senate panel approved a measure creating an independent commission empowered to consolidate the more than 200 school districts in the state to no more than 90. Those that refused would be denied state aid.

It died after drawing fire from officials from some smaller districts who argued with the presumption that small is bad and wasteful.

Five years later a special School District Redistricting Commission created by the Legislature proposed at least forcing a vote in each district on consolidation. But that failed to produce the desired results.

But Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, said it is worth pursuing what Fillmore is proposing.

He said there is little evidence that the state – and the students – are better served with more than 200 districts, citing the experience in Utah, which has half as many districts, spends less per student and still has higher test scores.

Fillmore said if the consolidation takes place it will be a net political benefit.

“After my bill is done and these schools are consolidated and they’ve saved that money, that argument can never be used by people like me as a Republican that the schools have too much money because the schools will have made the adjustments necessary,” he said.

The measure now goes to the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.