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Misplaced Priorities 

Parents and educators say TUSD erred by moving to close schools without community input

One day earlier this month, students and parents involved with Ochoa Elementary School in South Tucson pleaded with Tucson Unified School District Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer to keep the facility open.

The next day, the Pima County Board of Supervisors warmly received several community leaders who were volunteering to increase their own taxes in order to raise the tens of millions of dollars needed to try to keep spring training baseball in Tucson.

That juxtaposition in priorities is weighing heavily on the TUSD school board, and in a few weeks, it will make a final decision on proposed school closures.

The state's notorious lack of financial support for education isn't likely to change any time soon, indicated Steve Courter. He is president of the Tucson Education Association (TEA), the union representing TUSD teachers and some other district employees.

"Arizona is satisfied with being last in the nation" in per-pupil funding, Courter said.

At a public forum prior to her appointment as TUSD's next superintendent, Elizabeth Celania-Fagen talked about lobbying the state Legislature for more money. But she also added: "Be proactive, but plan for downside risk."

Following that advice, TUSD is proposing cuts to its $357 million annual budget, including the closure of four elementary schools--Corbett, Ochoa, Rogers and Wrightstown.

Even though the district for years has been criticized as being a top-heavy organization, Pfeuffer listed the lack of state monetary support and increased financial burdens as key reasons behind the recommended budget reductions.

The district is forecasting a deficit in its next fiscal year of at least $20 million. Pfeuffer said TUSD needs $7 million to implement a state-mandated English-learner program for 8,000 students, $4 million to cover higher transportation costs and $3 million for the exceptional-education program.

Other budget issues: $3.3 million is required for increased health-insurance premiums, $2.8 million is needed for salary and benefit raises to employees, and $3.3 million is required for miscellaneous and contingency items.

Pfeuffer, who is retiring this summer, has referred to these increased expenditures as "unusual things," but others involved with the district say they represent obvious problems which are just going to continue for TUSD.

Richard Myers--the other finalist to replace Pfeuffer--previously sat on a blue-ribbon committee which looked at TUSD operations. As early as five years ago, the group recommended the district look at school closures.

Before the selection of Celania-Fagen--an associate superintendent at Des Moines Public Schools in Iowa--as superintendent, Myers stressed: "One year ago, (the current budget problems) could have been anticipated to happen. They're not a surprise."

Myers noted that TUSD has 57,000 students attending almost 120 schools and other facilities--more schools and facilities than any other district in the state. By comparison, Mesa schools have 18,000 more pupils, but only 77 facilities.

TUSD's recent financial crunch started to bubble up late last year. Recommendations were internally prepared to deal with the situation.

After some back and forth, the TUSD school board in February tentatively adopted a number of cost-cutting measures. These included $8 million in savings from reducing central administration, and $1.5 million in savings by lowering the number of counselors and librarians at elementary schools.

The headline-grabbing proposal, though, was the 3-2 vote to close the four elementary schools, to achieve $4 million in savings. The selection of these schools was based on criteria developed by TUSD staff.

The public outcry over the closure proposal--which would impact approximately 1,250 students attending schools with a total capacity of 1,660--wasn't unanticipated. TUSD has used the neighborhood school model since the 19th century, making relatively small elementary schools within walking distance of homes the norm.

Of Tucson's neighborhood schools, Celania-Fagen noted: "They're a good thing in some ways, but they're less efficient economically."

Acknowledging she doesn't know a lot about TUSD's specific situation, at the public forum, Celania-Fagen referred to school-closure issues in Des Moines, where the issue is referred to as "school mergers."

"The approach is very important," she said. "Some places, it turns out OK; other places, people are furious."

In Tucson, students and parents are furious. Speakers at a meeting held at Rogers Elementary School a few weeks ago noted the negative reaction to the TUSD decision.

"This nonsense discredits the district," one speaker told Pfeuffer, to loud applause from the standing-room-only crowd.

"If TUSD continues to ignore the public, you will see students leave the district in droves," another man passionately remarked.

This sentiment was echoed at a public hearing on the school-closure issue held by the TUSD board two weeks ago. One speaker declared: "There will be a flood of students from TUSD, with talk of 100 from Corbett Elementary School alone."

Despite these warnings, district officials have not factored into their budget figures the loss of students because of the closure controversy. Instead, they believe that most students will remain in TUSD schools.

TUSD has been watching enrollment numbers fall over the last decade. Pfeuffer puts the total at 5,000 lost students to date, with 1,200 this year alone.

This drop in attendance is critical, because the state funds school districts based on enrollment. Fewer pupils translate into fewer dollars--$3,880 less in operating expenses and $451 fewer in capital reimbursement for each student lost this year.

Pfeuffer blamed the loss of students on affordable housing being built in suburban areas that are served by other school districts, and competition from 94 charter schools located within TUSD's boundaries.

At the Rogers meeting, Pfeuffer didn't mention two other reasons that some say the district could be losing students: The loss of kids who are Mexican citizens due to increased border security, and the district's public-perception problems.

School board member Judy Burns said she believes this latter factor can help explain the drop in enrollment. She pointed to rumors over the last several years that Wrightstown Elementary School would be closed.

"Parents have removed their children from that school rather than deal with the turmoil of TUSD," said Burns, who voted against the school closures.

Burns, who has been a vocal critic of Pfeuffer since 2005 and has often clashed with her fellow board members, had considered retiring from the school board when her term expires in December. But now she is leaning toward running again, she said.

Celania-Fagen said she believes TUSD can eventually reverse the loss of students and use its huge size as an advantage.

"Parents take their child to the best-fit school," she said in an interview before her selection as the next superintendent. "In a large district, you have opportunities to offer choices."

As Pfeuffer spoke at the meeting at Rogers, opponents of the closure presented a video. It proposed other possible budget cuts to address the deficit issue, including the elimination of the district's ethnic-studies program to save $2.7 million. (However, this money comes from desegregation taxes, not the general operating and maintenance budget.)

Burns offered her own cost-cutting measure: The number of assistant principals throughout the district could be reduced, saving $1.7 million annually.

Burns said she hasn't seen any research to back up Pfeuffer's budget projections, and she declared that she simply doesn't believe them.

"If you look at the actual savings from school closures, I'd be kind of surprised if it's $1 million," she said. She also calls the $7 million estimate for the English-language-learner program "inflated."

"To disrupt all these people's lives over such flimsy data is a crime," she concluded.

Others looking at the deficit issue believe reducing or eliminating salary and benefit increases in the coming fiscal year could help. That's obviously not a proposal Courter of the TEA supports; he called the district's budget problems a structural deficit: "You can't solve funding issues through salary negotiations, because that's only a stop-gap measure. Instead, the money must come from state and local sources."

However, reducing the number of teachers and other staff members would be a probable result of the school closures. "The district is now preparing layoff notices to be delivered by April 15," Courter noted.

Some 100 teachers could get those notices, Courter predicted. Many of the notices, he said, will go to teachers recently hired for the district's class-size reduction program, which the school board has decided to gut because of financial realities.

While Pfeuffer asked those attending the Rogers meeting to "decide (the closure issue) on facts and figures, not emotion," and to propose "ideas to make a smooth transition," one speaker summarized the feelings of many in the audience: "There should have been more community involvement (in the process) back in November."

One newly formed group, Tucson Unified School Supporters (TUSS), makes this same point. It has called for "a new process that includes community involvement in establishing school-closure and program-cut criteria." (See the accompanying article for more information.)

Burns said she favors this approach.

"We should stop the school-closure process and create a district-wide committee to consider all schools. It could either recommend a marketing campaign (to attract more students) or close schools," she said.

The TUSS and others involved with the closure issue believe the school district needs to establish an inclusive and independent group of people to review TUSD's overall budgetary picture. They refer to the success of a similar process in Denver.

The Denver Public Schools' A+ Denver program included a group of about 100 citizens that took months to review the district's financial situation. According to a press release, the committee "concluded that school closures were one of many necessary steps to restore financial health" to the district.

One of the goals of the process was to increase utilization of Denver schools; currently, schools are operating at only 70 percent capacity. At the same time, the district hopes to attract 5,000 students back to Denver Public Schools.

To implement the A+ concept, Denver will be closing eight schools this summer while creating five new schools in existing buildings. Approximately 3,000 students, along with 340 teachers and other staff members, will be impacted by the closures. Up to $3.5 million could be saved, and much of that money will be used at the schools where the affected students will be relocated.

The response in Denver to these recommendations--which were adopted unanimously by the school board last November--appears to have been generally positive. In part, that may be because up to 30 schools were initially targeted for possible closure.

Guerin Lee Green of the North Denver News is a school parent, and he praised the A+ process. But he added in warning: "The district didn't follow the committee's recommendations (on closure criteria). Instead, they picked and chose from them, with a lot of political considerations involved."

Back in Tucson, Courter noted, "The district needs an honest discussion with the public, who want many things (from the schools), but if TUSD doesn't have funding, they won't have them."

That same point was made at a rally held by TUSS a few weeks ago. A fictional character, Mr. Sad State of Education, performed a skit ironically emphasizing how the cash-strapped district could turn a negative financial situation into a positive: By doing things like selling all of the books in school libraries, TUSD could balance its budget. Plus, Mr. Sad State mentioned the benefits of school dropouts: "A prison uniform is much cheaper than a cap and gown."

As an alternative to this sorry scenario, a large group of people attending the rally pretended to represent many aspects of the community. They sat around a table to discuss funding options, and Pfeuffer was given a symbolic bag of gold to help out.

It's unlikely that there's a magical bag of gold to solve the district's fiscal problems. In Arizona, it is more likely that the gold will go to Major League Baseball, not classrooms.

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