Despite a plea for an earlier election date, a Pinal County Superior Court judge ruled March 12 that Sept. 7 is the day set for voters to decide whether to unite the Mammoth-San Manuel and Oracle school districts.

Whether that election will happen is still unclear, though, due to a letter from the county school superintendent's office indicating that 40 percent of 994 signatures that petitioners collected to get the consolidation issue on the ballot may be invalid.

Earlier, Superintendent Jack Harmon deemed them valid.

The hearing March 12 in Superior Court was the result of a lawsuit that Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District filed against Harmon. It contested his decision to set a consolidation election date in September, rather than a much discussed May date.

The legal complaint claimed that Harmon "has acted arbitrarily and capriciously and has abused his discretion" in choosing to set the date for a consolidation election for Sept. 7, rather than May 18.

The complaint said that the people "who signed the petitions were informed, understood and therefore proposed that consolidation of the two school districts would be effective for the fiscal (year) beginning July 1, 2004."

It pointed out an Arizona Revised Statute that "requires that the Pinal County School Superintendent 'shall hold the election' to determine the question on consolidation 'during the fiscal year preceding the fiscal year' consolidation is proposed to be effective."

Since May 18 is the only possible election date left in the 2003-04 fiscal year, the complaint said it is the only legal choice.

The September election date would mean that if voted for, consolidation wouldn't happen until the fall of 2005.

That might be too late, the complaint said, for the school districts to benefit from "the availability under current law of financial 'consolidation assistance'" - $2.1 million dollars.

The date also has implications for "employment issues for the districts' employees, enrollment issues for the districts' students, and other matters," the complaint said.

When Harmon set the election for September, he cited fairness for high school students as a primary reason.

Since the Oracle district has no high school, its students can choose to attend either Canyon del Oro or Mammoth-San Manuel High School. If the districts were consolidated, Oracle students could still apply to attend Canyon del Oro, since Arizona has an open-enrollment policy that allows students to attend schools outside their districts, space permitting. The deadline for applying to open-enroll for 2004-05, though, was in December.

Harmon also said that if consolidation were to happen smoothly, the two districts would need time to cool off from what has been a divisive issue.

On March 9, Harmon sent a letter to Mammoth-San Manuel officials and members of the Friends of Consolidation Committee alerting them that many of the signatures that were collected to get the consolidation measure on the ballot are likely invalid.

"When the petitions related to the consolidation election were forwarded to this office, I did not realize that I was supposed to check the dates of any signatures to determine if they were collected prior to the formation of (the Friends of Consolidation Committee)," the letter said. "I now believe that I have the duty to conduct this review, and to void any signatures collected prior to January 21, 2004."

Of the 332 signatures originally accepted from within the Mammoth-San Manuel district, 117 were likely valid, Harmon's letter said. The required number was 187. Of the 672 signatures originally accepted from within the Oracle district, 480 were likely valid, the letter said. The required number was 507.

Harmon said the letter was prompted by a conversation in early March with Pinal County Elections Director Gilbert Hoyos, who told him a political statement of organization form must be filed before signatures can be gathered on a petition.

Also, Ellen Galloway, a member of the anti-consolidation group Oracle Guard, had called him to find out when the form had been filed and to request the form, Harman said.

"I just want to get this taken care of, and we just want to make sure it's legal all the way around," Harmon said in a phone interview last week. "If they're not supposed to be counted and I count them, I'm sure I'll be questioned on the other side."

Harmon gave the recipients of the letter until April 9 to provide evidence that he should not throw out some of the signatures.

Galloway, who recently filed a complaint with Superior Court contesting the way the petition signatures were collected, now has the help of lawyer Jack Assini, who is donating his services.

"As a resident of Oracle, he heard what was going on and stepped up to the plate," Galloway said.

Galloway said she hasn't received a court date, yet, for a hearing of the case.

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