The race is on for people who support the consolidation of the San Manuel-Mammoth and Oracle school districts to gather the signatures needed to put their issue on a May 18 ballot.
The older-adult community of SaddleBrooke is a focal point, with 4,692 of Oracle Elementary School District's 6,565 registered voters.
The Mammoth-San Manuel district has 2,924 voters.
Being a private, planned community, though, this focal point is proving a problematic one.
SaddleBrooke bans passing petitions door to door, and few businesses or other organizations in the area allow petition gathering on their property.
Supporters of consolidation, calling themselves Friends of Consolidation, have roughly until Feb. 17 to collect 256 signatures in the Oracle district and 20 in the San Manuel-Mammoth district - otherwise, the signatures can be put toward a November election.
The Oracle Guard, a group of parents of school-age children in Oracle who oppose consolidation, is working to counteract the petitioning effort.
"What we're trying to say is, 'why waste the tax payers' time putting it on the ballot when it's already a non-issue with the Oracle parents,'" Oracle Guard member Karen Nordstrom said.
The Feb. 17 deadline is not set in stone, because no statute dictates when petitions must be in, said Linda Good, the Pinal County deputy attorney assigned to schools. If the signatures aren't collected in time, they could roll over for inclusion of the issue on a November ballot.
The district has 251 of the 507 signatures it needs from the Oracle district, only 16 of which are from the community of Oracle said Marilyn Semones, San Manuel's superintendent. The district has 167 of the 187 signatures it needs from the San Manuel-Mammoth district.
Friends of Consolidation set up booths at three businesses in and around SaddleBrooke on Jan. 28 to gather signatures.
They returned Jan. 29 for the second day of the three-day petition drive they had announced in a mailing sent to all SaddleBrooke residents.
Although they had permission from Dentistry by Design, 63675 E. Saddlebrooke Blvd., to set up a table on the sidewalk outside the business, the property manager of the shopping center, Vivian Hill, told them to leave.
"If we allow one person to solicit there for any reason, then I guarantee that you will have 50 people wanting to solicit there," she said.
Edward Wagner, the San Manuel resident who was told to leave, said he questioned the fairness of the policy.
"I asked how they could give the people of SaddleBrooke an opportunity to sign up and get on the ballot, and she said she really didn't know," he said.
Hill said she found out about the petitioners when a person who had tried to set up a booth in the space more than a year prior called and told her they were there.
Ellen Galloway, a member of Oracle Guard, said her group was responsible for the call, but they didn't necessarily intend for the group to leave.
"We were just looking for equal time," she said.
Oracle Guard wanted to set up booths near the Friends of Consolidation booths telling SaddleBrooke people why they should not support the petition, Nordstrom said.
"I really think our town (Oracle) is pretty secure," she said. "I think that's why they are focusing their efforts in SaddleBrooke."
But Robert Skiba, a longtime Oracle resident, said he had collected 10 signatures from Oracle residents in favor of uniting Oracle schools with those in San Manuel and Mammoth.
"Most people who understand the situation believe it's in the best interest in the tri-community," he said. "It's really one community. Our kids play ball together."
Friends of Consolidation got permission from Cecil Barton at Dentistry by Design on Jan. 31 to collect petition signatures from inside the business so the issue, which he said he is neither for nor against, can be put on the ballot.
"I don't have a feeling either way, but to further the democratic process I think it's a good idea," he said.
Given the difficulty of finding a booth spot within the older-adult community, future signatures probably will be collected solely by sympathetic SaddleBrooke residents, Semones said.
Jean Stump Green, president of the Republican Women of Pinal County, said the community's policy against placing fliers in mail tubes or going door-to-door makes distributing political information hard.
"It's something we all need to work on," she said. "For goodness' sake, this is America. We need to be involved in what is going on."
She said her group depends on informational teas in residents' houses, monthly gatherings, meeting announcements in SaddleBrooke newsletters, and permission to petition outside the Minit Market, 63715 E SaddleBrooke Blvd.
These options are not necessarily available to outside groups, she said.
Gary Hammond, a SaddleBrooke resident who opposes consolidation of the school districts, still called his community's policies "highly restrictive."
"On the one hand, they're trying to protect our privacy," he said. "On the other hand, don't we have some first amendment rights as well?"
He said the policies are detrimental to the extent that they keep residents from getting the information they need to be informed voters.
"We live in a larger community," he said. "SaddleBrooke isn't the whole world."
Members of Friends of Consolidation were given time to speak at a SaddleBrooke Rotary Club meeting. They also were invited to speak at a Democratic forum.
Another problematic area for Friends of Consolidation has involved haziness about what school officials can and can't do to aid its efforts.
In a recent article in The Miner, San Manuel's newspaper, Semones was quoted saying she had recently learned school officials weren't allowed to support the petition as officials, but only as individuals, and that "this is a setback, but only a temporary one."
She said she has been accused of playing too much of a role in the petition effort.
"I know there have been allegations that some of my behavior has been illegal and that I'm not telling the truth," she said, adding that she has followed all the rules put in front of her.
Linda Good, the Pinal County attorney general who works with the schools, said Semones has acted on good faith.
Last year, when she Semones began seeking legal advice about the petitioning process, no attorney general's opinion was out interpreting a new statute that said no one acting on behalf of the district could influence the outcome of an election.
By Good's way of thinking, a petition process had nothing to do with influencing an election.
"When people are voting on an override or bond election, (school officials) know they can't participate in that," she said, "but this was different because it's to get an election."
In January, the state Attorney General posted guidelines that drew a connection between trying to call an election and influencing an election, Good said.
"It's a complicated thing, and these elections don't happen as regularly as, say for example, a budget override election," she said. "The process for it is different, so there's just a lot more questions."
Arizona School Board Association attorney Chris Thomas held a workshop for Semones and the district's board members to clarify what they can and can't do.
As individuals, superintendents and board members can do anything including contributing their own money, putting bumper stickers on their cars, and going door to door, Good said.
They can't tell their subordinates what to do, though, or influence the petitioning process during working hours without taking leave, Good said. They can't use district money.
"I've generally said superintendents are kind of acting at your own risk," Good said. "People are going to take shots at you simply of who you are and why they know you."