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School leaders seek to navigate tricky educational landscape

PRESCOTT - A networking session of Yavapai County school leaders prompted talk of ways to collaborate so as to navigate a challenging educational environment with limited finances, declining enrollments, staff upheaval, even lack of volunteer decisionmakers.

For the ninth year, the Yavapai County Education Service Agency invited governing board chairman and superintendents from the 26 districts to attend a session on Feb. 5 where they could all talk and share their thoughts on issues of the day. Some were procedural, but more of the focus was on how districts avoid losing their independence amid state cutbacks and mandates.

One of the ways several members debated was sharing resources, be it school security officers, counselors, even nurses. A couple of the governing board chairs said they had tried joint purchasing of materials and equipment in the past but for some reason talk never became action.

In a time, though, when state legislators may start pushing for consolidation, or unification of districts, several of these leaders agreed they have to start thinking outside the box to define and protect their district's destiny.

Yavapai County Schools Superintendent Tim Carter said the county can always assist districts with some resources, but districts can also collaborate together where that makes sense for them. Several in the group agreed that this might be done with some careful consideration, but a key obstacle is the "fear factor' of losing a district's individuality.

"It just takes the right people at the table,' said Carter noting that inter-local agreements can be arranged for various shared resources. "You can share almost anything you want to share from superintendents to custodians. It just takes a willingness to sit down and figure it out.'

Several board chairman also talked about the importance of engaging the public in their debates on everything from school spending to new curriculum. For transparency, board members need to query administration about their rationales for operational issues even if they may personally know the answer.

Mingus Unified School District Board Clerk Anita Glazar said there is nothing worse than a board of "bobble heads.'

On the legislative landscape, Carter said he managed to help thwart a proposed bill that would require all school districts in the state to be unified - kindergarten through high school - by the year 2018.

He said he has no idea if this will resurface this year, or never again.

The key for districts is to be aware of the legislative conservation, and to be armed with facts about what that really means. As a strict cost-savings measure, something lawmakers propose, Carter said often this type of change does not reap extra dollars.

To Carter, the real issue to debate is whether or not either consolidation, or unification, leads to better "teaching and learning.'

Humboldt Governing Board President Brian Letendre said district boards have long proved expert at delivering the best education possible despite state demands and dollars.

Districts, though, cannot operate in a vacuum, he and others agreed. The public must recognize that education doesn't just happen, they said.

"And the noose is getting tighter and tighter,' LeTendre said.

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