Some leaders of the Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District were disappointed to hear that a public vote on whether to consolidate their district with the Oracle Elementary School District is set for Sept. 7, rather than the May date they worked to secure.

Meanwhile, in hopes of putting off the vote indefinitely, two mothers of Oracle students have filed a complaint in Pinal County Superior Court alleging that the signatures necessary for getting the issue on the ballot were collected unlawfully.

Members of the Mammoth-San Manuel district had a tentative deadline of Feb. 17 to collect the 694 signatures needed to bring the consolidation issue to a vote. On Feb. 6, they handed the signatures to Jack Harmon, the Pinal County superintendent of schools, 893 of which were deemed valid by the county recorder.

Of those, only 33 were from Oracle residents.

The consolidation issue is controversial because the Oracle school board voted not to pursue consolidation when presented with the idea. About 4,700 of Oracle Elementary School District's 6,500 registered voters live in the age-restricted older-adult community of SaddleBrooke.

Bill Romero, president of the San Manuel-Mammoth governing board, called Harmon's decision to hold the election in September rather than May "devastating."

"He's marginalized the voters of our two jurisdictions by his decision," Romero said. "For whatever reasons, working with his timeline, we met these dates, and yet he arbitrarily chose September."

Harmon argued that voters need the extra few months to better understand the implications of consolidation.

"You can see by the lawsuit that this is a very highly contested emotional issue," he said. "Things are flying back and forth. We need to get the correct information out there."

As an example, he cited an article that Mammoth-San Manuel Superintendent Marilyn Semones recently wrote for the SaddleBrooke publication Two's News, which he said gave misleading information about the effect consolidation might have on SaddleBrooke residents' property taxes.

The article says the tax increase would be about $28 per $100,000 of assessed value.

Harmon said he had given Semones those figures, but they were based on last year's data, which was bound to change.

"I had requested she not use those," he said. "I didn't want people coming back and saying (the district office) had said it would be that."

Semones was not available for comment.

Harmon said the board of supervisors will put together more precise figures in August - in time for a September election.

A larger reason for holding off on the election, Harmon said, is that a May election could have resulted in school consolidation for the 2004-05 school year, forcing some high school students to change schools this fall.

Because the Oracle Elementary School District has no high school, its students have the choice of attending Canyon del Oro High School or San Manuel High School.

In the case of consolidation, Oracle students would have to apply for open enrollment like any other Arizona student if they wanted to attend Canyon del Oro. Open enrollment allows students to attend out-of-district schools, provided the schools have space.

The open-enrollment deadline for 2004-05 has passed - it was in December.

"I think it's not fair to the kids to say, 'OK, you attended school here for three years, but guess what - next year you're going to be at a different school,'" Harmon said. "It would cause more hard feelings and bitterness, and it wouldn't be right for those students."

Oracle school Superintendent John Clark said the September voting date relieves some of his logistical concerns.

"This way, if the election is successful, we would have the bulk of a school year to plan everything out and make it work," he said. "Administratively, it would be much more feasible."

Also, Clark said he's glad that Oracle school district's budget override issues, set for the May election date, will fly solo. The budget override issues call for freeing, each year for four years, $200,000 in the district's maintenance and operation budget and $85,000 for its programming in kindergarten through third grade.

Ellen Galloway, an Oracle parent, said she is also relieved the budget override issue won't share a ballot with consolidation.

"People who come out to vote down consolidation might be people who are just against taxes in general, so then perhaps they might vote down the override," she said.

Galloway, a founding member of Oracle Guard, a community protection group that has taken on consolidation as one of its issues, filed a complaint along with Oracle Guard member Margaret Fairbanks alleging in a Pinal County Superior Court filing that the pro-consolidation petitioners' signature collections were illegal.

The two Oracle residents are looking for an attorney, Galloway said, but they filed the complaint without one, drawing on the help of lawyer friends and a niece.

"We felt we needed to submit it before Mr. Harmon called for an election," Galloway said. "We didn't want to find out we'd gotten it in too late."

The complaint, which was served to Harmon, Romero, the county recorder, the director of elections, the San Manuel-Mammoth School District, alleges the following:

€ Nine employees, the district superintendent and one or more board members circulated petitions in SaddleBrooke, and both school districts, during school hours on school time.

€ Petitions were circulated using district resources, with prior knowledge that isn't allowed.

€ A number of people signed the petitions outside the presence of the person signing as circulator of the petitions.

€ The district provided misinformation to the residents of SaddleBrooke regarding the impact of consolidation of the two districts on their property taxes, and in costs to the district and students at Oracle.

In response to the allegations, Romero said he "didn't have any concern" that the Mammoth-San Manuel governing board would be "able to prove these allegations are baseless."

Otherwise, he refrained from comment.

"We've referred this complaint to the county attorney's office for review," he said. "Since we haven't met as a body, it would be unfair of me to state a position."

He added that his school district's primary motivation in seeking consolidation has been to take advantage of the $2 million incentive the state offers districts to consolidate.

"If there is a consolidation, we look forward to working with the Oracle school board to enhance the quality of students in our districts," he said.

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