As parents, community members, and TUSD officials meet this morning at Catalina High School, to further discuss the closure of many schools, one Governing Board member, Michael Hicks has questions about the process. In a candid interview with James T. Harris on 104.1 FM, yesterday afternoon, Hicks said that he had doubts about the information provided to the Board about the schools on the chopping block and how they got there.
Hicks told Harris’s radio audience that he had only received select information about the schools proposed for the chopping block and not all of the information was accurate. Hicks said, “If they give you one piece of inaccurate information, you have to begin to question all of the information you are getting.”
Harris, a former school teacher himself before taking over Tucson drive time, asked Hicks about the deficit the district says it is facing, the district’s use of stimulus money, and the district’s Master Plan. Hicks said that contrary to what the district’s Superintendent claims, the district is losing money not because of the Legislature, but because the district’s poor performance has caused the loss of students.
TUSD has 13,000 empty seats while over 15,000 potential TUSD students have opted to attend schools in neighboring districts, charters or private schools. Just this week, a charter school enrolled 13 Special Education students who are transferring out of TUSD.
Michael Hicks took some of the responsibility for the community’s distrust saying that the district should have closed more schools before. Instead he told Harris, “You don’t break promises, and we made promises to some of these people that we weren’t going to close schools.”
One of those broken promises concerned Fort Lowell/Townsend K-8. The school was blended little over 2 years ago and after spending nearly $1 million in renovations. The parents and staff were told that once they moved into the newly blended school, they would not have to move again. However, the school is on the chopping block again.
As one of the schools with the most acreage in a desirable commercial area, many district insiders say the Fort Lowell/Townsend campus is only on the chopping block because a neighboring hospital hopes to expand. At the same time the District is sparing failing schools and proposing to close schools that are fairly successful.
Ochoa Elementary is one such example. It received a “D” grade from the Arizona Department of Education for the past two years and the building is poor condition. It was spared due to political pressure while Sewell, which received a “B” grade, will most likely be shuttered.
Harris also talked to state Senator Frank Antenori. Antenori told Harris’s audience that the Legislature did not in fact cut school funding and noted that few other districts in the state are closing schools. Antenori mentioned that the Sahaurita Unified School District is adding schools.
According to Antenori, the Legislature actually increased funding for public education the past two years. Previously when the State was facing a budget crisis, the education budget was reduced, but at a much lower rate than other areas.
However, this past year, in a campaign to sell a permanent 1 cent sales tax to voters, proponents pushed the concept that schools would face major deficits if the ballot measure failed. Antenori confirmed Hicks’s belief that the district was facing the deficit because of its declining enrollment.
“Until TUSD puts the educational needs of students ahead of the political, ideological and personal needs of the district’s elected and appointed leadership the ongoing fiscal crisis will continue,” said Rich Kronberg, co-founder of the public school advocacy group, TU4SD. “Mr. Hicks is correct that the problem is caused more by TUSD’s failure to stop declining enrollment than by any actions of the state legislature. Parents take their children out of TUSD in order to provide them with a better education, either in charter schools or in neighboring school districts. Until TUSD puts more of its substantial resources into the classroom (currently only 50.4% of its funding goes to the classroom) so all students have the opportunity for a better education it will continue to face annual budgetary shortfalls.
Statement by Michael Hicks:
“I am concerned about the lack of evidence that the district’s administration took steps to evaluate the district’s budget line-by-line to identify areas in which cuts could be made prior to making the decision to close our neighborhood schools.”
“The administrative ranks have grown, administrative offices have not been consolidated, services have not been evaluated for efficacy, and other cost-saving measures have not been studied and indentified as alternatives to school closures.”
“While I recognize that the district must close some schools, due to our failure to attract new students and retain old students, I share the community’s distrust of the district’s decision-making on difficult community matters. President Ronald Regan told us to ‘trust but verify,’ and I have been unable to verify that all of the school closures proposed are necessary and prudent.”
“From the staged book removal from Tucson High School after the correct finding by Judge Kowal and Superintendent John Huppenthal, to the arduous school closure public forums, over the past year the district has stirred up the emotions of the community with little consideration as to the long term damage to both the community and the district. Therefore, I am approaching school closures with skepticism, and demand that a process begin to evaluate what other measures can be taken before any schools are closed.”
The two public hearings to discuss the proposed closure of 14 schools are scheduled for this morning at 10 a.m. and Monday at 6 p.m. Both will be held at Catalina Magnet High School, 3645 E. Pima St. The final vote is scheduled for Dec. 20.
Closures have been initiated at: Brichta, Corbett, Cragin, Lyons, Manzo, Menlo Park, Schumaker and Sewell elementary schools; Carson, Hohokam, Maxwell and Wakefield middle schools; Fort Lowell/Townsend K-8; and Howenstine High School.