The Pinal County school superintendent has decided to put the decision about whether 407 petition signatures are valid in the hands of a Pinal County Superior Court Judge.
The petitioners are requesting an election to vote on whether to merge the Mammoth-San Manuel Unified and Oracle Elementary school districts into one district. Superintendent Jack Harmon granted the petitioners' request in February, but later questioned the validity of 40 percent of the signatures on the grounds that they were collected before a political organization was officially formed to collect them.
The proposed merger has great support among school leaders at Mammoth-San Manuel, while school leaders in the smaller community of Oracle oppose it. Oracle district Superintendent John Clark has likened it to a "hostile takeover."
Harmon initially wrote a letter to the political organization, Friends of Consolidation, allowing it two weeks to give reasons why the signatures were valid before he made a final judgment.
Now, since a civil lawsuit by parents of Oracle students is addressing the validity of the petitions, Harmon has decided to leave that verdict to the Superior Court.
"I've notified the school districts and Friends of Consolidation committee that I will hold off until the court makes some kind of movement there," Harmon said. "It's been in the court for a while, so we expect some sort of answer soon."
The Oracle parents' lawsuit didn't address the necessity of an official political organization when it was first filed.
The parents - Ellen Galloway and Margaret Fairbanks - had drafted their complaint with no legal help, just to move quickly to stave off an election about school consolidation. Initially, their main argument against the signatures' validity was that Mammoth-San Manuel illegally used district resources to collect them.
Mammoth-San Manuel asked the judge to dismiss that complaint, arguing that the Pinal County Attorney's Office should handle such accusations, not the court.
The judge agreed, but gave the Oracle parents an opportunity to amend their complaint.
They found an Oracle lawyer, Jack Asini, who agreed to volunteer his services, and the complaint was rewritten to include the legal necessity of forming a political organization before collecting signatures for a petition.
The new complaint also argues that the intent of the law is that two school districts should not be allowed to merge if the smaller district doesn't want to.
Asini said he doesn't know when the case will be heard, but doubts it will have the priority that it had when Mammoth-San Manuel was pushing for a quick-turn-around election in May rather than September.
"Now I don't think anybody is knocking down walls to make sure it happens soon," he said.
The Arizona Court of Appeals recently ruled that if residents of the two school districts vote on whether to merge, the election will be no earlier than Sept. 7.
Mammoth-San Manuel has worked for months for a May vote, because a "yes" vote on consolidation in May would have meant the districts would have merged at the beginning of the 2004-05 school year.
Legislation is such right now that school districts can receive $2.1 million dollars as an enticement to merge. Mammoth-San Manuel officials have said they would like to merge before the law is changed.
When Harmon received petition signatures from supporters of the merge, though, he initially called for a September election, arguing that the school districts would need more than three months to gracefully merge.
Mammoth-San Manuel sued Harmon, saying May was the only month he could legally call an election. They argued that petition signers were specifically asking for an election to decide whether the districts would merge for 2004-05.
The Pinal County Superior Court ruled in Harmon's favor. Mammoth-San Manuel took its case to the Arizona Court of Appeals, which refused to hear the case.