Desegregation plan, competition from charter schools add to Tucson school district's financial woes

May 21, 2013

School is out for summer, but Arizona school districts are looking ahead to the fall when they will face another year of lean budgets.

TUSD A Tucson Unified School District banner at the school district's headquarters. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)

We are offering a series of reports about the financial challenges some Arizona public schools are facing. Our second report focuses on desegegration in Tucson and the increase in charter schools.

Tucson Unified is one of the hardest hit districts in the state with a shortfall of $17 million. Tucson district officials blame their money woes on a court-ordered desegregation plan and strong competition from charter schools. The Tucson Unified School District has been mired in a financial crisis since the recession hit, and to add to the pain district officials complain that state lawmakers cut about $50 million over the past 5 years.

 “We’re facing what was clearly a serious financial issue,” said TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone.

He said to make ends meet, the district will close 11 schools this summer. It also will make deep cuts in other areas.  

But now the TUSD board is awaiting court approval of another huge financial issue. District governing board president Adelita Grijalva said they have had to come up with a $64 million plan to settle a long court battle over desegregation. 

“So what they are doing now is there are increasing the accessibility for all children specifically Latino and African-American children," Grijalva said.

Despite the Tucson School District’s financial crunch, it was able to piece together enough state and federal funds to cover the multi-million dollar desegregation plan. Superintendent Pedicone said the district is under the guidance of a federal “special master” to ensure it complies with the order.

“To be sure that we weren’t further segregating any schools and that we were adding integration," Pedicone said.

Among other things, the district has agreed to do more to reduce minority student drop-out rates, invest in racially diverse magnet schools that specialize in the arts and sciences and it must increase education opportunities for English learners.

Nancy Ramirez is an attorney with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund in Los Angeles. MALDEF has represented plaintiffs in the TUSD desegregation case since it was filed in 1975. She said it will continue to monitor the district.

“Our role as the attorneys for the Latino students is to keep the district accountable and hold their feet to the fire," Ramirez said.

It took nearly 35 years to racially diversify Tucson schools. It is considered a serious financial setback for the district, but  there is another smoldering trend affecting TUSD’s bottom line. Students are fleeing the district under the state’s open enrollment policy, and many are attending public charter schools. 

The state does not provide any hard numbers showing exactly how many students leave public schools for charters, but Pedicone said charters are   popular in the Tucson area.

“We have more charters per capita in our district than any other district although there are many charters that are now a lot of charters being built on the outskirts in suburban districts as well, but it had an impact on us," Pedicone said.

In fact, about a third of the schools in Pima County are charter schools. Last year, the state provided charter schools with about $800 more per student than school districts received, but after federal funds were applied, school districts had a clear financial advantage over charters. Still, Pedicone argued charters are taking students and money away from  TUSD classrooms.

Eileen Sigmund Eileen Sigmund is the president of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. (Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)


President of the Arizona Charter Schools Association Eileen Sigmund said she is not surprised TUSD is watching its student numbers drop.

“Overwhelmingly our research shows that a third of students sitting in charters are sitting in A rated schools so I think what you are seeing right now is that parents are exercising and families are exercising their right to excellent options," Sigmund said.

But TUSD officials acknowledge they need to work harder to compete with charter schools. They realize they are operating in an educational free market and said they will develop new interesting and relevant course work to bring some of their students back.