Programming Note: There will be no Fresh Air this evening. Instead, we will air the "Reveal" documentary, including a story on the path heroin takes.
Tucson Unified School District closes 11 schools to cope with huge budget shortfall
Many Arizona public school students start their summer vacation this week, but it is a bittersweet time for school districts facing massive budget shortfalls and a lot of uncertainty about the level of state funding they will receive next school year.
We are offering a series of reports about the financial challenges some Arizona public schools are facing. Our first report focuses on the budget woes of Tucson Unified School District which is closing 11 schools this summer.
TUSD is one of the largest public school districts in the state with more than 50,000 students. TUSD Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva said it has been confronted with some serious financial problems and declining enrollment.
“We’ve had a decline of about ten-thousand students in the ten years that I’ve been on the board," Grijalva said.
Grijalva is leading efforts to reduce the district’s $17 million budget shortfall. Tax revenues for the district shrunk dramatically when Tucson property values plummeted during the recession. Plus, Grijalva said what was once a reliable money stream for TUSD has nearly dried up.
“Over the last ten years, the state has cut funding for TUSD significantly so we’ve had about a $50-million drop in funding," Grijalva said.
State funding for TUSD is partly based on enrollment, but TUSD’s Superintendent John Pedicone said the district has seen far fewer students because of Arizona’s tough immigration policies.
“In this district with the population that we serve some of the legal implications of laws like 10-70 affected this whole region, with many of our Latino families reconsidering locating here in Tucson and Arizona quite frankly," Pedicone said.
So with declining enrollment and dwindling revenues last December, the TUSD governing board voted to close 11 schools. It will save the district almost $5 million.
And just a few years ago, TUSD closed nine other schools to cut costs. Thousands of students will have to attend classes at neighboring schools, and they will have to be bused or get rides from their parents.
Wakefield Middle School is one of the schools that will close this month. It has been a fixture of the low-income neighborhood on Tucson’s south side since 1939.
"Our final day for students will be May 23rd, and the final day for teachers will be May 24th, 2013," said Tiffany McKee, interim principal at Wakefield Middle School.
McKee greets students at Wakefield, and her emotions show through about the closure of this school.
“We serve approximately 420 students, and many generations of families have been through our hallways. This closure is impacting our community," McKee said.
Wakefield’s doors will close for a final time this week. It’s a stark reality of the TUSD budget crunch, and the consolidation plan has received negative reviews from some parents. Maria Morones is a member of the PTA and a TUSD graduate.
“I personally wasn’t happy with the whole closure altogether, so my so will no longer be attending a TUSD school," Morones said.
Morones said she is sending her 7-year-old son Hector, who is a special needs student, to school at another Tucson district. She is angry over how TUSD has handled the school closures.
“I think a lot of lies have been told to the community. They pretended to be transparent and I don’t believe they were," Morones said. "I really think there’s a lot of politics being played with our children’s education.”
Morones and some other critics of TUSD said the governing board is closing poor performing schools in mostly Mexican-American neighborhoods. She is also pushing TUSD to sell off or lease the schools it is closing to reduce the budget shortfall.
John Pedicone is the superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District.(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
But Pedicone said he wants security guards to live at the closed schools to guard against vandalism. He is confident that TUSD can reopen some of the schools after the budget crisis is over, but there are still other pressing problems the district needs to work out right now.
France Banales is president of the Tucson Education Association, the union that represents 4,000 TUSD employees.
“We have staff positions that have been eliminated and so for those folks to go out there and find jobs. Most of them are going to have to take some pay cuts or a different position that they hadn’t intended," Banales said.
In addition to the TUSD workers who will be displaced by the school closures, the district’s governing board recently voted to send pink slips to nearly 200 other teachers, principals and staff members, but TUSD said it has found jobs in the district for most of the workers.