Four TUSD elementary schools may be shuttered
Arizona Daily Star
Jan. 29, 2008
District cites $4M savings, issues of enrollment, academic performance
By George B. Sánchez
Tucson, Arizona | Published: http://www.azstarnet.com/allheadlines/222651
Tucson's largest school district hopes to save up to $4 million by shuttering four elementary schools before the next school year.
Though the net impact of the proposed closures is yet to be fully understood — including staff changes, transportation needs, judicial oversight and the impact on schools that will absorb the students — public discussion of the proposal begins tonight at a special meeting of the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board.
Parental response to the announcement was resoundingly confused and angry.
Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer spent much of Monday explaining his recommended closures to TUSD employee groups, local media, staff and parent groups, noting that budget woes, state mandates and funding concerns helped prompt the recommendations.
He emphasized no formal decision has been made, and there are legal requirements to be met before such moves can occur, including, for now, approval from the federal judge overseeing TUSD's desegregation case.
The schools targeted for closure are Corbett, Ochoa, Rogers and Wrightstown elementaries.
Initially, Pfeuffer explained, district officials looked at shutting schools with low enrollment, but officials also took into account enrollment trends, academic performance and a school site's capacity for growth.
TUSD officials expect to save between $600,000 and $1 million per closure, Pfeuffer said.
While officials don't want to further disrupt school communities by the change, students at only one school — Ochoa — will be transferred as a group to another school, likely Safford Elementary School. Otherwise, Pfeuffer said, officials plan to keep students in the same geographical region under some semblance of a neighborhood school. Specifics of where they'll go weren't announced.
There also are programs at some of the targeted schools — such as Corbett's Gifted and Talented Education program and Rogers' special education programs — that must have some continuity, he explained.
Students will be transferred to schools with the same or better academic rating under Arizona Learns, the state's accountability system, Pfeuffer said, noting that Corbett's GATE program, about 100 students, masked underperforming scores at the school.
Transportation would be offered to students who live more than 1 1/2 miles from their new school, he said.
What to do with the vacant schools and property is still undecided, he said. Land trades with government entities might be an option, as is leasing property, he said, but selling the land requires a public vote. The taxpayer benefit of sale would come down to savings of a few pennies each, he said.
Tonight, Pfeuffer will ask the board to approve the announcement of public hearings related to school closures. TUSD then has 30 days, or until early March, to receive formal public input. The board must then wait another 30 days, or until early April, to make a final decision.
It won't be the first time board members will have brought up the issue, as board member Bruce Burke has mentioned school closures as a possibility in light of TUSD's recent budget problems. However, Pfeuffer said TUSD needs to start the next school year with a balanced budget. It will also be the first year for TUSD's next superintendent. Pfeuffer is retiring at the end of this school year.
Along with implementing a performance-based budget, TUSD is looking at 10 to 15 percent budget cuts per department districtwide. The transfer of students is also necessary because TUSD, under state-growth formulas, doesn't qualify for funds for new schools, or buildings, because of under-enrolled schools and under-utilized spaces, Pfeuffer said.
Meanwhile, unfunded state mandates for English language learners could cost the district an estimated $7 million for new teachers.
Pfeuffer said he is looking for public discussion and discourse, not demonstrations.
The superintendent admitted, however, that until TUSD is released from its decades-old desegregation order, any school closure would have to be approved by a federal judge. TUSD officials are optimistic that they have satisfied the requirements of the desegregation order, which led to busing students across town and the creation of new programs, such as magnet schools, in an attempt to ethnically balance district schools.
Attorneys involved are awaiting an announcement from U.S. District Judge David Bury.
Official talk of school closures was a surprise, though rumors began spreading during the weekend. Pfeuffer initially planned a press conference for Tuesday afternoon, but at the last minute rescheduled it for Monday.
Corbett parent and PTA President Kim Grimes said she heard the news from the school's principal, who called her Sunday afternoon.
"I was absolutely shocked," she said. "There's been talk about closing small schools for years, but we have nearly 600 students, and this is really out of left field."
Alex Curtis, who has a daughter at Corbett, called the process "covert and quiet."
"If they've known about this deficit, they should have addressed it over the summer and not in the middle of the school year, giving us no time to determine where we would send our children," she said.
She said she'd consider a charter school for her daughter depending on where the school planned on moving students.
Wrightstown parent Amy Bocage said she was livid with the announcement. Her 6-year-old son transferred there from Collier Elementary School in October.
She said about a month later she began hearing rumors of a school closure. She said her son is aware of the possible closure.
"This is traumatic for him," she said. "He is so upset.
"Wrightstown is like a small family," Bocage said. "I've had great interactions with the principal, great interactions with his kindergarten teacher. I don't think it's fair to any of the students."
Jay Kirch has two children at Rogers and was disturbed to receive a call from the school's principal Monday about the possible closure. He went to a site council meeting Monday night at TUSD headquarters.
"The more I heard, the more it seemed like a foregone conclusion that the schools will close and that this was just a formality," he said. "But I intend to investigate every possible avenue and mobilize parents to make a big showing at every meeting."
More, page a4
• Profiles of the four schools that are at risk for closure.
• Details for attending the TUSD special board meeting.
The Star's 2008 lists of local private and charter schools is at azstarnet.com/education
● Star reporters Andrea Rivera and Alexis Huicochea contributed to this story. ● Contact reporter George B. Sánchez at 573-4195 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.