Sept. 1, 2004 - Turning down the winding, undulating road that leads to SaddleBrooke, it is clear the battle ground has been marked.

A large yellow sign with bold black letters offers a greeting as you enter the community: "Vote no to consolidation on Sept. 7."

The decision as to whether the school districts of Mammoth-San Manuel Unified and Oracle Elementary should combine to become one large, comprehensive district will be put to the voters Sept. 7 and the major parties involved say the issue could be won or lost in SaddleBrooke, an age-restrictive community of about 4,000 homes lying southwest of Oracle.

Three-fourths of the registered voters in the Oracle School District reside in the retirement community, which houses no children who attend Oracle schools. In order for the consolidation issue to pass at the polls, it must be approved in both special districts.

On Aug. 23, cars and golf carts whizzed through the community and screeched to a halt in front of the old clubhouse in SaddleBrooke where education officials from both school districts, as well as representatives from the county and experts on taxes and transportation, organized a forum to make their case to the voters who likely will decide an issue that has become the center of debate in the rural communities nestled quietly in the northern Catalina foothills. More than 250 residents attended the meeting to find out more about what the outcome of their votes would mean to the schools.

The issue of consolidation is being brought to the table by the Mammoth-San Manuel district.

Whether the election would even proceed had been a point of contention after an Oracle citizens group, led by Ellen Joyce Galloway, filed suit against the county superintendent to have the election halted stating signatures gathered to move the election forward had been collected by individuals who later formed a political action committee, "Friends of Consolidation." The plaintiff argued that because the signatures were gathered prior to the registration of the committee, they should be rendered invalid, according to Arizona law, and there would therefore not be enough valid signatures on the petition to hold an election.

Pinal Superior Court Judge Boyd Johnson ruled the signatures could be used, thereby allowing the question of whether the districts should consolidate be presented to the voters.

If it is approved, the new district will form effective July 5, 2005 and would assume all responsibilities of the old districts, for example making decisions regarding any pending litigation, according to Pinal County Superintendent of Public Schools Jack Harmon, but any bonds or overrides that currently exist in a district will remain the responsibility of the taxpayers in the former district. A $212,000 bond in the Oracle district will be paid in full at the end of this year, whereas the San Manuel district recently refinanced a $ 4 million bond that will not be paid until the 2009/2010 fiscal year. Oracle, however, recently passed a budget override that will not be complete until 2011, whereas Mammoth-San Manuel is in the sixth year of a seven-year override.

One large governing board would form with all 10 current members of both boards included until an election would be held in November 2006 to winnow it down to five. The board would then have to make decisons as to which teachers and administrators stayed with the district and what to do with the ones that were no longer needed.

The student bodies and the school budgets would be combined to form one district of about 2,000 students and a budget of $10 million.

There would be several changes to the way business is handled for the residents in the two districts if the consolidation were to pass, Harmon said. Taxes would change, going up in some cases and down in others, transportation issues would arise with more students to bus, some distances of more than 30 miles, and there is a possibility that the programs at the high school would change to accommodate a larger student body, Harmon said.

He could offer no details as to how those factors would change, just that he was certain they would. He said from looking at Arizona's school finance laws, "The tax rate in the Oracle district is going to go up if the consolidation passes and the San Manuel tax rate is going to go down if the consolidation passes. I'm not prepared to tell you by how much."

San Manuel Superintendent Marilyn Semones and all members of the San Manuel governing board support consolidation of the districts primarily as a means of fiscal responsibility.

She said a combined budget of $10 million, plus a $2.1 million incentive to consolidate from the state, will allow the district to provide more and better programs, a better trained staff and an overall "economy of scale to improve instruction."

With only one district to run, the administrative costs would go down.

The Oracle school district is comprised of one first through eighth grade school, Mountain Vista, and a preschool, kindergarten and enrichment program at Oracle Ridge. The school currently is labeled an underperforming school by the state.

Mammoth-San Manuel has three elementary schools and a junior/senior high school. While all the districts' elementaries are excelling, the high school has fallen below the benchmark, although Semones said they are making progress.

As far as getting a sense for public support of the issue, Semones said "it depends on which public." She said clearly many in the Oracle school district have opposed the issue, however, she believes there is support. Contrary to what Oracle Superintendent John Clark has said repeatedly about the issue, she said, "this is not a hostile takeover." She said as the communities to the north of Tucson continue to grow, a "planned collaboration" of the districts is necessary.

According to Harmon, the Mammoth-San Manuel school district did not exist before the 1950s and students living in Oracle then attended high school in Florence or Hayden. An agreement made between the two districts in the 50s gave land in the Oracle district to the Mammoth district, with the promise that Oracle students could attend the new high school free, forever. But after school finance law changes in 1980, the court ruled on a suit filed between the two districts that one governing board could not bind future boards, the agreement was annulled and Oracle students were required to begin paying tuition. But a number of students decided to take advantage of an Arizona law governing open enrollment and attend Canyon del Oro High School, in the Amphitheater Public Schools district, which is closer to many families living in Oracle than is Mammoth-San Manuel. Since Oracle has no high school, its students can choose to attend San Manuel High School, or they can go to CDO High School. Today, more than 150 high school students living in Oracle attend CDO.

Hard economic times caused primarily by a decline in enrollment have brought the consolidation issue to a head now. In 1999, the BHP-Magma copper mine shut down, causing job loss for more than 2,000 people - many of whom lived in San Manuel and Oracle.

As mine workers moved away to find employment, the Mammoth-San Manuel schools lost about 300 of 1,800 students. While enrollment seems to have plateaued, the future of the area is uncertain, as no development is planned and the mines look at further shutdowns. The loss of revenue that goes ihand in hand with the loss of business has put a strain on the finances of the district.

Meanwhile, enrollment also was on the decline in Oracle, but with several large housing developments on the horizon, things are looking up.

While the issue of consolidation is largely supported in the communities of Mammoth and San Manuel, many Oracle residents have spoken out against consolidation, including all members of the school governing board and Superintendent John Clark.

Clark said his main reason for standing up against consolidation efforts is that "It's not wanted by the parents. They are very happy the way it is."

He said the students have spoken with their feet when they become of high school age, choosing CDO over San Manuel for a number of reason, mainly because of the variety of programs the larger district can offer.

And the programs Oracle does offer have been getting better by leaps and bounds, Clark said, with the district earning Average Yearly Progress under No Child Left Behind for the second consecutive year. They have brought back kindergarten programs and are "building for the future." Clark said he is confident the district will receive the performing designation when state labels are released in October.

He said the school is safe, contrary to what has been indicated by Semones, and has not had any reports filed with the sheriff or the school's resources officer indicating students going fist to cuff.

A consolidated district would be more than 500 square miles in size, as big as the entire state of Delaware. Clark said the people of Oracle, and its school board, want to concentrate on improving and building on the school district they already have, and put the idea of consolidation, and all the unknowns it brings, behind them.

Clark said he firmly believes consolidation of the two districts will cause parents to take their children to other neighboring districts and to increase the number of charter schools in the area. He said he does not believe parents want to send their children to San Manuel High School, as evidenced by the 163 students who currently choose CDO High School over San Manuel.

If consolidation occurred, the Oracle students would have a home high school. Under state open-enrollment laws, they could still attend CDO, but only if the school had room for them. Semones assured parents they would still have a choice under the consolidation. She said she has spoken to officials in the Amphitheater district who have told her there will be room for the Oracle students as the district's northern most two high schools, CDO and Ironwood Ridge, are not at full capacity.

Amphitheater Superintendent Vicki Balentine confirmed that she has spoken to both school superintendents and assured them that there is enough room at CDO to continue accommodating the Oracle students even if the consolidation goes ahead.

The merger also could affect the Amphitheater district because the 163 students from Oracle attend Canyon del Oro High School, bringing with them state-paid tuition of $2,800 each, plus the money schools normally get per student. That's more than $1 million extra in the Amphi budget. Consolidation would end the tuition fees.

There are different reasons given for supporting or opposing the issue on the ballot, but the people in SaddleBrooke have said one of the biggest factors is the impact the consolidation could have on their pocketbooks.

If consolidation is approved by voters Sept. 7, the tax rate in San Manuel is expected to go down, however, the rate in Oracle is expected to go up by a projected rate of approximately $200 per $100,000 of assessed value, according to Semones.

Oracle now pays a lower tax rate than San Manuel, laying down about $349 per $100,000 home compared to $925 in San Manuel.

Patrick Schifano is an Oracle governing board member who said he knows the SaddleBrooke vote will "pack a punch" in the election because of the sheer outnumbering of registered voters there in comparison to the other communities.

He also is a SaddleBrooke resident, and said he gets a sense from his friends and neighbors that "they are going to say no to this consolidation."

The reason is plain and simple: "We don't want our taxes raised."

He said despite his own personal feelings about consolidation, the people of SaddleBrooke don't have children in the schools to think about when making the decision at the polls, and the individual impact on each family's budget is what will sway them one way or the other.

Tanis Salant, director of the Institute for Local Government at the University of Arizona, said the exact amount Oracle residents' taxes will go up is not known precisely. Many variables such as assessed valuation, budgets and debt must be factored in to calculate the figure. She told SaddleBrooke residents at the town hall meeting, "You will experience a jump in your primary tax in the short run, but in the long run, with the growth rate, that will probably go down."

She said within three years, 13,640 more residents are expected in the areas of Eagle Crest and Willow Springs and that equates to about 1,500 high school students.

It will be a matter of years before the communities there will have to build a high school to keep up with new children coming in, she said. Whether that will mean a second high school in San Manuel or a high school of their own in Oracle will be decided at the election.

Other SaddleBrooke residents present at the town hall meeting agreed with Schifano's sentiment that the consolidation will likely be decided as a tax issue.

Sharon Miller is a SaddleBrooke resident who retired from teaching, but still works with a teacher education program at the University of Arizona.

She said after listening to both sides talk about the issue, she is "more against the consolidation than I am for it."

Contrary to what some may think, Miller said, not everyone who lives in the community has bags full of money tucked away somewhere. Many live on a fixed income, and a tax hike is not something they would support.

She said she had hoped to hear more in the days leading up to the election about why those with limited resources should consider forking over more to the schools. She said she wanted to hear about programs that will be offered and direct ways children will benefit. It is important to her to educate children, even if they are not her own.

And she does not believe she is alone in thinking that way. If officials supporting consolidation had talked more about the educational benefits, or detriments, of the change, Miller said, she thinks the community could have been persuaded one way or another to make their decision for the sake of students.

SaddleBrooke residents volunteer in the schools, helping with clothes and food donations, tutoring and more. Both superintendents recognize the hundreds of volunteer hours given by the people of SaddleBrooke and the ways in which the educational programs are enriched as a result.

But despite the cooperation, Miller said, she thinks the decision will boil down to taxes.

"I don't begrudge my tax dollars," she said. "I wanted to hear more about how they would be spent if this were approved, and I didn't."

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