At public hearings on possible school closures, the Tucson Unified School District governing board listened as teachers, parents and students begged the board to keep their schools open.
The district has a projected $17 million deficit, and enrollment has been declining since 2000, going from about 60,000 students to 50,000. School closures and consolidations are expected to address less than half of the shortfall. Nonetheless, the board approved a final list of 14 schools to consider closing at a special meeting on Nov. 27. Two public hearings, on Dec. 8 and 10, allowed for more public comment, and the board will meet again on Thursday, Dec. 20, for a final vote.
Kerry Hodgkinson, the parent of a student at Brichta Elementary School and president of the school's Parent-Teacher Organization, told the board at the Dec. 8 meeting that it needed to clean its "own house first," before closing schools.
"As a mom who has to feed a family of five on $50 a week, I can do a lot better job than your budget analyst," she said.
Carla Dugin reminded the board of a promise TUSD made to Carson Middle School.
"We were told that we would be safe, and closure would not be talked about for three years. Now it's under two years, and here we are," she said, referring to a previous round of school closures. "We teach our kids to keep their word; why can't we ask the same from TUSD. ... If you close Carson, you will lose my faith in the district. And my son, he will no longer be a student at TUSD."
Hundreds of teachers, parents and students filled the Catalina Magnet High School auditorium to capacity for the Dec. 8 meeting. Some parents and teachers at that meeting questioned the criteria for school closures approved by the board. The criteria includes a lack of success in attracting more students, low academic performance, weak prospects for turnaround in enrollment or academic performance, and the availability of nearby schools to take more students.
"It's not in the best interest of the district," one parent told the board about the possibility of closing Sewell Elementary School, which has a B rating from the Arizona Department of Education. "Sewell has consistent academic success (and) enrichment programs. ... It attracts students; 40 percent are open-enrolled, because parents want their children to attend a quality school."
Cesar Aguirre, who had spoken to the board before as an advocate for Ochoa Elementary School, which narrowly escaped previous closure lists, told board members that the closure process presented to the public felt fake. The board began by announcing it might need to close 30 schools. Then the number shrank to 20 schools, and now it stands at 14.
"If you close seven or nine schools, the masses are going to be happy," Aguirre said. "But don't be fooled, people. I believe (the district spends) more than any other district in the state on administration," he continued, asking why the district didn't start cutting administrative costs rather than closing schools first.
"You continue to target schools in high-poverty neighborhoods, and all westside schools," Aguirre said, referring to the Menlo Park, Manzo and Brichta elementary schools, which are all on the current closure list.
No indication was given during the public hearings how the board's final vote will transpire at the Dec. 20 meeting. TUSD board president Miguel Cuevas made it clear at the Dec. 8 hearing that the board was there to listen to community members and that board members would not comment that day.
But a few days earlier, on Tuesday, Dec. 4, board member Michael Hicks attended a meeting at Brichta Elementary and told parents that he planned to vote "no" on all the possible school closures. Hicks said he does not agree with the criteria used by the administration in determining closures and described it as "politics."
"I don't believe the criteria were good and sound," he said. "At times, it seemed like they picked a school out of their back pocket."
Hicks said TUSD should look at developing more district-run charter schools, adding an average of two more students per classroom throughout the district, and adopting a year-round school year.
The purpose of the meeting was to help Brichta parents organize for the public hearings. Brichta parent Stephanie Hamilton said parents have formed the Brichta Community Action Network to develop alternatives for the district.
Hamilton said most parents want to keep neighborhood schools open, and the general feeling is that the district's proposal for school closures came out of nowhere.
"We need to work together to give the district other alternatives," she said.