Maricopa, Pima school districts try to stop unification
Arizona Republic
Dec. 11, 2008

Educators in Maricopa and Pima counties are going to court to try to stop unification approved by voters last month.

Meanwhile, district officials want to block a unification plan approved by voters Nov. 4 because of language in the enabling legislation that opponents say means that a majority of all registered voters, not those actually voting, is required for passage.

Plans to transform the Altar Valley Elementary School District into a K-12 district appear to be history after a Pima County Superior Court judge decided Friday that a majority of registered district voters failed to approve unification. The Pima County Elections Department earlier had declared that the unification plan passed because a majority of voters who cast ballots approved the proposal.

The same premise is the basis for a case pending in Maricopa County Superior Court. On Friday morning, a hearing will be held to consider a proposal challenging voter approval of combining Tolleson, Union, Littleton, Pendergast and Fowler elementary-school districts with Tolleson Union High School District.

It would create a 30,000-plus pupil district in the southwest Valley. A majority of voters who cast ballots said yes to the Tolleson unification plan but those who voted represented about 30 percent of registered voters, according to the districts.

"The law was approved with 'qualified electors' (registered voters). I can't believe that, that many people missed this," said Bill Christensen, Tolleson Elementary School District's superintendent. "We're not the legislative experts here. We're looking for a way to start clarifying what's going on here. We can't operate doing anything illegal."

Meanwhile, the state School District Redistricting Commission met Tuesday to discuss the fate of unification in Arizona but decided not to introduce new plans. The commission ends on Dec. 31.

Regarding the school districts' lawsuits, Commission Chairman Marty Shultz said: "I have not reviewed that decision. That is not the interpretation that this commission had."

Statewide, voters who cast ballots had approved six of 27 plans to combine 76 elementary- and high-school districts into 27 K-12 districts. In Maricopa County, the Tolleson plan was the only one of six proposals approved.

Instead of scheduling meetings and drafting plans to merge by July 2010, districts are questioning the validity of the unification vote.

Based on the judge's ruling, Altar Valley will remain a K-8 district, said Douglas Roe, superintendent of Altar Valley School District.

"For the time being, it's good for us," Roe said. "They are not funding school construction. We are looking at long-range plans to create a high school."

Roe said the larger concern is if the commission decides to put the measure on the ballot once more.

"If they (the commission) are going to force school districts to have elections, they are going to have to pay for it."


Reporter Megan Gordon contributed to this report.