Unifying the City’s many school districts seems like a logical way to put more money into classrooms, but voters may not let this idea move to the head of the class come November.

There’s a plan afoot to put $20 million more into Arizona classrooms next year – without raising taxes by a single penny – but it’s going to have a helluva time getting voter approval in the November election.

What, you say? Who wouldn’t want to get 20 million more bangs-for-the-buck in education – the single largest bite out of our tax dollars? Who’d turn their back on that money, especially if it doesn’t come from our pockets but is taken from money we’re already spending (or misspending) on education?

Although it sounds so logical and so sensible and so needed, I can easily see Arizona saying “No,” with a capital N.

Because there is something that has, for the past 100 years, been more precious to Arizona than the billions we spend on public education every year. It’s called “local control” of schools, and it has given us a school district profile that not only looks foolish but resembles nothing found anywhere else in this country.

Pay attention, class, because you’re going to vote on Arizona’s public school system in November as you’re deciding who to send to the White House. And this Arizona vote could be just as important.

I remember rolling my eyes – or was I laughing out loud? – when I came to Arizona some 35 years ago and learned this state has 227 school districts. I’d arrived from Michigan, where every city did the self-respecting thing and had one district for kindergarten through 12th grade. In fact, that’s a pattern you’ll find in almost every city in the nation – one city, one school district. But here I was in Phoenix, which alone had 14 separate school districts within the city boundaries – 13 elementary districts and the Phoenix Union High School District.

OK, you do the math: 14 individual districts, each with several schools under their jurisdiction. That means 14 superintendents for the whole shebang, as well as their assistant superintendents. That means individual principals at each school and assistants there. That means each district buying its own paper and desks and school lunches. It also means 14 different elected school boards setting policy.

You don’t need a calculator to realize how those administrative costs climb astronomically as you accommodate this duplicating system. When I asked why in the world Arizona had ever done something so expensive, I was given a two-word answer – perhaps the most sacred words ever spoken in the Grand Canyon State: “local control.”

And I found that it’s been this way in Arizona for the past 100 years or so, a new district being created whenever a community grew or some landowner gave a piece of property to build a school (that’s why so many districts carry the names of Arizona pioneers).

“For decades, people have asked why there are so many school districts in this state,” notes Marty Shultz, a community activist and vice president of government affairs for Pinnacle West Capital Corp., the company that owns Arizona Public Service.

Shultz says it hasn’t made sense to him since his days in the classroom; he’s a 1966 graduate of Arizona State University who spent three years teaching reading at Longview Elementary School before moving into the administration of Osborn School District. He left education in 1973 to join Phoenix Mayor Tim Barrow at City Hall and has been a lobbyist and activist ever since.

He’s now the chairman of a legislative-mandated study group called the School District Redistricting Commission, which was assigned the task of finding out how best to unify Arizona’s schools into a more manageable – and less costly – entity.

“Business groups said yes to the change, but education groups don’t like change,” Shultz says over lunch in Downtown Phoenix. He’s probably never uttered such an understatement.

Here’s one clear gauge: For the past 20 years, the legislature has offered a “consolidation incentive” to financially reward districts that merge with one another. And in all that time, the only district to take advantage of becoming a combined K-12 program has been Kingman. (It had just two districts to start with, so this was hardly a ringing endorsement of the idea.)

But in 2005, the Arizona Legislature and Governor Janet Napolitano – in one of the few things they easily agreed upon – decided to mount a full-court press for unification of districts. Most legislators in both houses approved the bill that created the commission, directed them to study the issue, hold hearings around the state, talk to everybody involved and come up with a plan that makes sense.

Obviously, consolidated districts that already exist weren’t covered under this mandate, so the commission was actually looking at 108 elementary schools and 15 high school districts in nine of Arizona’s 15 counties. (In Maricopa County, which is the size of Massachusetts, they proposed four separate plans.)

They surveyed all the affected districts and held hearings in Prescott, Phoenix and Tucson. And they came up with a plan, which will go before voters in the November election. But here’s the rub: Every individual district slated to go into a unified district must approve the plan. If any one district says no, the unification plan is dead.

Some areas of Arizona will likely approve their unification, and we can cheer every time it happens. Shultz says that if everyone said yes, it would free up $20 million to be spent in classrooms, rather than for administrative costs, in the first year alone. And that’s the whole point, he notes. “We’re trying to move money from administration to the classroom,” he says.

Right now, if you look at the nation as a whole, about 62 percent of all tax money for education is being spent in the classroom. In Arizona, the average is between 58 and 59 percent. In Shultz’s old Osborn District of north central Phoenix, it’s 50 percent. Mesa, which is already a unified district and is not affected by these plans, beats most of Arizona’s other districts by spending about 63 percent of its money in the classroom, proving that this unification thing indeed works.

Shultz admits he naively thought everyone would get in line. “Being a public school advocate, I saw this as a bulwark against the charter and home school movements – I thought educators would agree that we need to spend more in the classroom,” he says. “Instead, I was surprised by the resistance to change by school boards and school officials.”

School officials obviously saw unification as eliminating lots of jobs – how else do you save $20 million? – and few people will support a plan that will put them on the street. Meanwhile, many sitting school board members see their posts as springboard positions into political careers and don’t want to be eliminated, either. The one group Shultz hopes might still come around are teachers, especially elementary school teachers in small districts who, the commission found, are paid considerably less than teachers in unified or high school districts.

But Shultz isn’t giving up, and he hopes that by November voters will see things the commission’s way. “I’m counting on the wisdom of crowds,” he says, as people see the facts and figures and realize we’re wasting

tons of money on this “local control” fixation.

While the commission’s plan might get voter approval in some parts of Arizona, the political realist in me sees the biggest fights and the bleakest chances in the Valley of the Sun, where “mega districts” are on the drawing board.

“I don’t see the case for unification,” says Chris Thomas, who wears two important hats in this picture: He’s president of the Madison School District, and he’s the chief legal counsel for the Arizona School Board Association. Both are on record as opposing unification.

In fact, in the Madison district’s rejection letter to the commission rejecting the unification plan, Thomas and his fellow board members declared, “We are certain Madison would be greatly harmed and that would indeed be a very bad thing for this community and its students.”

The Madison School District is one of the best in the state. At 117 years old, its academic achievements have raised the property values of the homes within its boundaries, and some 20 percent of its enrollment comes from outside the district.

Originally, the commission proposed a total of five K-12 districts in Phoenix. That plan would have combined Madison with three other elementary districts and Camelback and North high schools. The Madison School Board didn’t like that plan much, either.

But eventually the commission decided to go with one mega district covering all of Phoenix. That means Madison would be melded with the other 12 elementary districts in Phoenix and all the Phoenix Union high schools into a district with some 108,000 students – the largest district in all of Arizona. (Mesa now holds the No. 1 ranking with 75,000 students.)

Meanwhile, another mega district would combine the Tempe Union High School district with the Kyrene and Tempe elementary districts for about 43,000 students. And a third would combine Glendale Union High with Washington and Glendale elementary districts for a 50,000-student district.

“There’s a currency of trust built up over time in a school district,” Thomas notes. “It’s that currency that allows you to pass bond issues and overrides that are needed, because we don’t fund education enough in Arizona. Why would you jeopardize that?”

Meanwhile, he says the school board association would favor unification “if the local district wants to do it.” But that isn’t the case here, he adds. “This is being imposed by a state entity that has no sensitivity to local concerns.”

I’d rather not say it, but I think this commission has wasted a lot of time and effort for a plan that’s doomed in Phoenix. (There’s some hope for Tempe and Glendale.)

I think it made a major mistake in thinking it could ever get 13 elementary districts and the citywide high school district in Phoenix to agree on anything, to say nothing of unifying into one mass. It had a far better chance, I believe, when it proposed five districts in Phoenix – I doubt voters would have passed all of them, but I’m betting they would have approved some.

So while after the November election we may see some unified school districts in rural Arizona, I’m not holding my breath for the schools in Phoenix. And that’s a shame.