Shut Up and Shut Down

Keen Elementary is slated to close next year despite resident desires to keep it open.

Given the political and military muscle backing the decision, it wasn't surprising that the TUSD Governing Board voted to close Keen Elementary School. But school supporters wonder why they weren't even able to express their opinions on this issue.

At its meeting on Aug. 12, the board heard lengthy presentations from Col. Mike Spencer of Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and Bill Carroll, president of its booster group, the DM 50. Both stressed the safety and liability concerns of keeping open a school--with more than 400 students--which is directly under the flight path and 1.5 miles off the end of the military airport's runway, at 3538 E. Ellington Place.

Spencer also mentioned, in passing, the impact that loud planes could have on "an effective educational environment due to the noise." Although he didn't say it, research has shown there are negative connections between learning and frequent noise interruptions from airplanes.

For his part, Carroll focused mostly on the economic benefits of the air base. He concluded by alarmingly telling the board about the 50-year-old school, "If you want to keep (Julia Keen) there, we'll have to get rid of Davis-Monthan."

Following those presentations, the 20 or so neighborhood residents in attendance weren't allowed to speak or ask questions such as: If it is so dangerous, why not close it immediately? What will happen with the children and the property?

Before the meeting, the neighbors had been told they would each have three minutes under the "Call to Audience" agenda item. Instead, only one of them got that opportunity.

"It was a joke," Julia Keen area resident Michael Manchenton says of the meeting. He was the only school supporter who spoke. "The board was wined and dined by the Air Force, city and state before the meeting, then they had as much time as they wanted to give their presentation, but we had no chance to talk."

Another neighborhood resident, Priscilla Petersen, tried to speak at "Call to the Audience," but wasn't called upon due to time limitations. She says of the process, "I've never been so upset. The meeting seemed like a set-up and the decision had (already) been made. I feel our rights to participate in the decision-making were ignored."

Board member Adelita Grijalva, who voted against the closure, understands why the neighbors are so angry. "We weren't giving everyone an equal opportunity to present their views," she says.

School board chairman Joel Ireland didn't return The Weekly's phone calls, but in the group's defense, member Bruce Burke points out the TUSD staff had previously held three community meetings, and the results were provided to them.

"I felt I had a pretty good sense of where the neighbors were on the issue and knew what the views of the community were," Burke says.

Those views had been strongly expressed at the earlier community meetings where the consensus of the hundreds of people attending was that the school should remain open. Some of those participating also spoke about the entire decision-making process and its flaws.

One grandmother living in the area said in June, "I believe that if the board would come to the school to speak to the community, it would be as the district acting in good faith. Give us more than three minutes to speak for the future of our students and our neighborhood."

That plea was ignored. Manchenton and some of his neighbors think the working-class character of the area determined how they were treated. He believes that if the group lived near Sabino Canyon, the board would have at least listened to them, since they would have been represented by attorneys.

But with almost two years of intense lobbying behind the push for closure, including a recent assist from Gov. Janet Napolitano's office, the vote to shut down Julia Keen at the end of the current school year was seemingly preordained. Neighbors are now left to wonder what will happen next.

Rumors are flying that all of the students will be bused to another school several miles away, but TUSD officials deny that decision has been made. Instead, they insist they want to establish a committee to work with the community on it.

Along with the obvious problems associated with busing--time of travel for the students, loss of neighborhood attachment to the school and difficulty in after-school activity participation--there is also concern about the educational impact of Julia Keen's closure. Neighbors point out that it received a "maintaining" label from the state of Arizona last year, while some other TUSD schools in the immediate vicinity were called "underperforming."

Residents also foresee potential problems with the property. Local neighborhood association president Chris Lopez says she would like the building turned into a community center which could supply social services to the area. Petersen and others, however, have heard that the district eventually plans on selling the land for an industrial use, something which would degrade the area even more after the school is closed.

TUSD officials also deny that allegation, but after the way neighborhood residents were treated by the school board, it isn't surprising some of them feel wary. As Petersen says, "There is a lot of anger, a lot of despair and a lot of feeling that the low-income status of the neighborhood is the reason we're being trampled on."

Regardless of those sentiments, Julia Keen will be closed next year, barring some sort of major reversal. Built with grant money supplied by the federal government, it opened in December 1953, and plans were being made for a 50th anniversary party for the school.

As things turned out, its 50th anniversary will also be its last.