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Deseg judge Bury green lights TUSD plan to close 11 schools

If you thought U.S. District Judge David C. Bury was going to be the superhero parents, students and teachers prayed for back in December, well, yeah, you were wrong.

When the Tucson Unified School District governing board voted in December to close 11 schools to ease a projected $17 million deficit, the hundreds of parents, students and teachers who begged schools be kept open were left with only one hope—the intervention of a federal judge, because the district is under a desegregation order.

But any possibility that Bury would delay or stop the closure process were dashed, then buried, last Friday, Feb. 15, when he finally issued a decision in support of the closures.

In his decision, Bury cited a recommendation from desegregation special master Willis Hawley, who approved of the closures in his report to the judge. "(Hawley) explains that not closing these schools will result in the district having to fund approximately $4 million in savings from staff and program cuts," Bury wrote. "Even with the school closures, the district must look to staff and program cuts to reduce the remainder of the deficit, which is over $10 million."

Bury also noted that the plaintiffs representing African-American students and Mexican-American students in the nearly 40-year-old desegregation lawsuit against TUSD did not offer alternatives to the closures. However, attorneys for both groups argued before Bury that the district's master plan that outlined the closures was not guided by the desegregation plan because the master plan and new deseg plan were being drawn up at the same time.

The plaintiffs asked the court to delay ruling on school closures until a better impact analysis was done by TUSD, as outlined in the deseg plan. But Bury said the district's financial crisis was an important factor in guiding his decision.

"With no alternatives ... the court finds the district has taken a balanced approach to address the budget deficit by proposing to close 11 schools," Bury's order states.

Mendoza plaintiff representative Sylvia Campoy told the Tucson Weekly that the federal court's blanket approval, "shows disregard for the communities impacted. It also indicates that the special master and court accepted TUSD's financial data and student enrollment and capacity numbers at face value."

"Many question the validity of the data and the way it has been manipulated," Campoy said.

"The checks and balances that the court put in place have clearly failed in this situation, which is a terrible way to initiate a new desegregation order."

In his decision, Bury outlined other objections presented to the court by the plaintiffs, as well as by the U.S. Department of Justice, that closing the schools "will affect among other things: attendance boundaries, student assignment patterns, the number and location of administrator and certificated staff positions, and the resources available for students across the district, including resources necessary to address the student achievement goals under the (deseg plan)."

But, he went on recommendations from Hawley who looked at whether there were better schools available for receiving students from closed schools as well as the distances between schools, achievement scores, the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch and other statistics.

"The special master reported a few cases where a better choice either for integration or for a better-rated school was arguable. ... There was no clear option," Bury wrote. "The district made reasonable choices, which this court notes does not mean they were easy choices."

In Bury's footnotes, he mentioned receiving "heart-felt letters from the community regarding the positive attributes of the schools ...," and mentioned that he did ask Hawley to further investigate the closing of Wakefield Middle School. He also looked more closely at Menlo Park Elementary.

"The court is aware that communities take pride in their neighborhood schools. The letters from parents and students at Menlo Park reflect this," the decision states.

"The court is committed to offsetting the negative impact of closing Menlo Park and all the other schools to the greatest extent possible. The special master is charged here and through the (deseg plan) to oversee these closures to ensure the district moves to improve Utterback magnet school (a receiving school with a D rating) and that services available at close schools, such as Menlo Park, transfer to receiving schools."

The 11 schools on the closure list are Brichta, Corbett, Lyons, Menlo Park and Schumaker elementary schools; Carson, Hohokam, Maxwell and Wakefield middle schools; Fort Lowell-Townsend K-8; and Howenstine High Magnet School.

TUSD released a statement shortly after Bury's decision that noted Maxwell Middle School will be reopened in the 2013-2014 school year as a K-8 school.

The statement also said "The approved closures will cut $4.2 million from next year's budget and provide $4.5 million in annual savings. The district is continuing to identify remaining cuts and is reviewing many options including reductions in central administration, salary cuts, furlough days, and medical insurance contribution levels, among other options. The governing board recently approved a modification of school site funding formulas that will result in $4 million in budget reductions."

Bury is expected to make another decision on school boundaries as well as on construction projects related to the receiving schools. All schools to be closed need to be properly mothballed to prevent vandalism, and receiving schools need to be prepped to make way for an increase in additional students.