The fate of two small school districts in the Catalina mountains may fall into the hands of SaddleBrooke voters with no young children, because the two districts disagree about whether they should merge into one district.

To make scarce dollars stretch farther, the Mammoth-San Manuel Unified School District proposed consolidating with Oracle Elementary School District, thus cutting some costs of operating two district offices.

Oracle governing board members object, so Mammoth-San Manuel is asking retirees and near-retirees in the SaddleBrooke community to sign a petition that would bring consolidation to voters on a May 18 ballot.

At the same time, Oracle schools are pushing their own plan for combating financial hardship - to the same voters on the same ballot.

The merger could also affect the Amphitheater district as more than 180 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. Consolidation would end the tuition fees.

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.

In October, the company announced that it would permanently close the copper smelting and refinery facility, which have sat idle, but still generated property taxes for schools.

During the past three years, Oracle has lost not only a third of 450 students, but also the full-day kindergarten program it has run for longer than a decade. Teachers' salaries have been frozen for two years.

To fix these problems and also to hire a specialist to help the school adhere to No Child Left Behind legislation, the district has called for a budget override election May 18. An override would free up an additional $285,000 for the district from next year's budget, said John Clark, Oracle's superintendent.

As for Mammoth-San Manuel, its loss of students dropped its high school's athletics category from 4A to 2A, the district was able to carry on without damage to its curriculum, said Marilyn Semones, the district's superintendent. The state helped, with money earmarked for schools with rapidly declining enrollment.

A 4A school has between 95 and 1,899 students, and a 2A school has between 201 and 449.

San Manuel Governing Board President Bill Romero said the district is seeking to consolidate with Oracle schools not because it has financial troubles, but because it wants to "improve the business model" and enhance children's education.

"This is part of a strategic plan to move from where we are to someplace better," he said.

So far, the district has been able to weather economic downturn without firing any full-time teacher, he said. Instead, the district has chosen not to replace teachers who left.

"We've done this without hurting people," he said, adding that the district has worked hard at that.

If two districts become one, fewer paychecks are needed, he said. Since Semones is retiring from Mammoth-San Manuel at the end of the year, the Oracle superintendent Clark could extend his oversight to all the schools. The schools could pare down to one district office, and also benefit from money that the state gives as incentive for districts to consolidate.

"All we are looking at is trying to improve the product - trying to improve the business model," Romero said. "If we're not going to get more money, we have to do better with the money we do have."

It wouldn't be the first time students in San Manuel and Oracle shared a school district.

A half century ago, they were one district, Semones said. San Manuel broke away and formed its own district after growing larger than Oracle.

Through the years, the communities had talked about pooling their resources, Romero said, but consolidation became a major issue in recent years after the state began making it lucrative.

The state would award Mammoth-San Manuel and Oracle $2.1 million over three years for joining forces, Semones said.

According to the districts, Mammoth-San Manuel's yearly budget is $7 million, and Oracle's is $4.5 million. About $1.2 million of Oracle's budget is tuition money from the state so the students, whose schools go only through eighth grade, can attend nearby high schools.

Several bills that to be introduced during Arizona's current legislative session are promoting mandatory consolidation for some small school districts. Although some people argue that the bills don't have much chance of passing, Semones said the time to consolidate is now, before the state takes away incentives.

"They are going to force us to consolidate," she said, "and if they're going to force us, I want the $2.1 million."

Semones said that money freed up by consolidation could provide more electives at San Manuel High School, especially in the foreign language department.

But many Oracle residents, including everyone on the school governing board and the superintendent, oppose the idea, Clark said.

Semones attributes this to a "no-growth" mentality, which she said has surfaced in the past when the issue of consolidation has come up.

"You get this groundswell of 'leave us alone,'" she said. "This time the board did not back off."

One reason for opposition involves options beyond junior high.

Since Oracle has no high school, its students can choose to attend San Manuel High School, or they can choose Canyon del Oro High School in the Amphitheater Public Schools district.

This year, 35 Oracle students are attending San Manuel, and 186 are attending Canyon del Oro, Clark said.

If consolidation occurred, the Oracle students would have a home high school. Under state open-enrollment laws, they could still attend Canyon del Oro, but only if the school had room for them. That stipulation concerns some parents.

"Their apprehension is a real one," principal Michael Gemma said. "There may be times and years when we would not be able to accommodate them."

Also, the state would no longer pay for transportation to Canyon del Oro after consolidation.

According to a flyer distributed by San Manuel school officials, the new board of a consolidated school district would "decide the issue of transportation."

Ellen Galloway, an Oracle parent, said she wants her youngest daughter to have the option of attending Canyon del Oro rather than San Manuel, just as the two older siblings did.

"CDO has so much more to offer," she said. "In addition to studio art, there's ceramics, jewelry and photojournalism."

She said she fears that the governing board of a consolidated school district could at some point decide to bus Oracle students away to San Manuel for middle school.

"There's no blueprint," she said. "Who stays and who goes as far as teachers and services is going to be up to a school board that doesn't exist yet."

Another reason Oracle residents gave for opposing consolidation was local control.

"With Oracle being unincorporated, all the activities happen at the school," superintendent John Clark said. "After school programs, adult classes - it's a focal point that draws people together."

To protest consolidation, Galloway and several other parents collected 164 signatures in three days from grandparents, business owners, teachers and parents in Oracle.

The parents, calling themselves Oracle Guard, also post updates about consolidation at local businesses.

The signatures and their attached letter, presented to both districts' governing boards in December, said, "Consolidations are for corporations, not the Oracle schools. Please do not waste your time and money or ours on this issue, as we are happy with our school district in its present form. Any move to consolidate will be met with opposition."

In its December meeting, the Oracle governing board decided it wanted to leave the issue alone. The Mammoth-San Manuel board didn't, so the district went to voters.

School officials began circulating a petition to put consolidation on the ballot for a May 18 election so voters in both school districts could decide whether the districts should unite.

Since most voters in the Oracle school district are the retired or near-retired residents of SaddleBrooke, a community of more than 4,000 that has restrictions on children as residents, school officials visited the community.

The superintendent and board president introduced the petition at a Rotary Club meeting, before being told by the state Attorney General that governing board members are not allowed to help with the petitioning, according to an article in San Manuel's newspaper, The Miner.

School officials distributed a flyer addressing common questions about consolidation, including "Will my taxes increase?"

According to the flyer, for a $100,000 home, residents in the Oracle district should expect an estimated $28.46 increase a year, and residents in the Mammoth-San Manuel school district should expect an estimated $106.96 decrease.

Some have argued that these taxes could increase if the economy in San Manuel continues to decline.

Neither district would assume the other district's bond debt.

Clark, who showed no interest in being superintendent of a consolidated school district, and likened the move to a "hostile takeover," expressed concern that the effort to put consolidation on the May 18 ballot might hinder Oracle's effort to acquire its $285,000 in override money.

Voters who would flock to the polls to vote no to higher school taxes might also vote no to an override.

"If there were a number of voters who came out in favor of consolidation, why would they vote for an override election?" he said.

Not all residents in SaddleBrooke see consolidation simply as matter of increased taxes, though.

Bob Springer a retiree who started a volunteer tutoring program at schools in San Manuel and Oracle, said he has visited half-empty classrooms in San Manuel and has heard people in Oracle talking about wanting to build a new school. He said consolidation makes sense.

"If there's an exodus of students, I would very much like to see them go where there is a surplus of facilities," he said.

At least, he said, people should have the chance to vote.

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