The TUSD Vortex: A School-Closure Bloodletting

Walking into Catalina Magnet High School last night, one thing was obvious at the special meeting to decide the fate of 14 Tucson Unified School District schools — and no, it wasn't a change of heart.

Noticeable was the smaller number of parents, teachers, community activists and children present at all past special meetings and public hearings to discuss school closures and consolidation. These were the meetings where we saw parents and teachers go before the board and beg that their schools remain open, or ask the board to hold off until after the first of the year when two new board members take their place on the dais, or start with the budget first to keep students and neighborhoods from dealing with this trauma.

Those who grumbled from their seats and at the podium in the Catalina Magnet High School auditorium said it didn't take rocket science to understand why there weren't the hundreds and hundreds of parents and children who filled the auditorium at the previous meetings. For TUSD students, yesterday was the final day of school before the start of winter break. In other words, perhaps the auditorium was only half-full because the special meeting, which decided the fate of 14 schools (11 will close and one will be turned into a district-run charter school), because the meeting was held five days before Christmas.

Here are the highlights:

Only forty-five minutes was provided for call to audience, so the public could address the board before the closure vote. Well-before the meeting, some critics and observers didn't think that was enough time. Although it conveniently could allow a representative from each school on the closure list to have 3.2 minutes. Those who spoke addressed school closures, as well as a resolution brought before board member Mark Stegeman that request TUSD staff to pull together a plan that would find a new home for University High School, as well as what Stegeman described during the meeting as a "high-performing" middle school on the same site. Brenda Limon reminded the board that an enrollment cap had been put on UHS by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights in order for the school to not pull high achieving schools from other schools. Or perhaps it was former TUSD board candidate Betts Putnam-Hidalgo who brought it further home when she yelled out from her seat, "Should all our middle schools be high-performing?" A remark that drew a special chiding from outgoing board president Miguel Cuevas.

Remember that weird vote at the Tuesday, Dec. 11 school board meeting? Well, TUSD parent Jana Happel took time during call to the audience to remind the board (and those seated in the auditorium) that what took place that evening was wrong and just another example as to why student enrollment is down in the district.

"The community sees the district dysfunction and board ... and it is killing our schools and harming our children," she said, adding that the district has embarrassed itself so many time that it's time to say enough. "... leave school closures to new board."

On the vote that took place Dec. 11, in which the district approved the desegregation plan going before U.S. District Court Judge David Bury, but there was also a lot of confusion on a vote the board took that resulted in a 3-2 vote against an objection to core curriculum, aka Mexican-American studies.

You can read our more detailed account here, or the dead-tree version here.

Anyway, here's more from Hapel: "... you betrayed the public trust ... Ms. Grijalva was deceived." Hapel described Stegeman's revote request as a decoy objection. "... you have breached our trust and lost any legitimacy to close our schools. Do not close our schools tonight."

Fisher's representative from the TUSD desegregation lawsuit and former school board member Gloria Copeland also showed up to chastise Stegeman UHS resolution. "You guys rolled the dice," she said. "...You have half the community up in arms over deseg and the other half over the closures and you decide to put another ... by being disrespectful ... add to the list and expand while closing Carson?" Copeland said. "It's cold, unfair and it is not right. You did not give this community the respect and time to recover from the two catastrophes that are already on the table ... please do not take action tonight."

Before the final vote took place to close 11 schools, staff presented more information on each school to explain why the schools was selected and why the receiving schools were selected, and explained how the changes met the school desegregation goal and orders.