US judge gives TUSD go-ahead to close 11 schools, cites deficit

2013-02-16T00:00:00Z US judge gives TUSD go-ahead to close 11 schools, cites deficitAlexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
February 16, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A federal judge has given TUSD the OK to close 11 schools, citing a looming $17 million budget deficit that has left the district no other choice.

The approval, which is required under the district's decades-old desegregation order, was given Friday, under the condition that certain support services be provided to all students affected by the closures.

Campuses that will close at the end of this school year are Schumaker, Corbett, Lyons, Brichta and Menlo Park elementary schools; Hohokam, Carson, Maxwell and Wakefield middle schools; Ft. Lowell-Townsend K-8; and Howenstine High Magnet School.

The closures are expected to save about $4 million a year, leaving TUSD to consider other measures to include reducing staff and programs.

The black and Hispanic plaintiffs in the desegregation case opposed the closures, and asked U.S. District Judge David Bury to either deny or defer the ruling.

They argued the closure process was flawed and Tucson Unified failed to "meaningfully advance integration."

But Bury found the proposed closures would not exacerbate ethnic imbalances in TUSD, nor impede future integration efforts.

The Tucson Unified School District has been losing thousands of students for the last several years and currently has 13,000 empty seats.

Most of the schools being closed are operating significantly under capacity and are expected to remain under capacity well into the future.

The black plaintiffs argued that operating under capacity might be cited as grounds for reassigning students to a school rather than away from it. But Bury noted other factors that were taken under consideration such as renovation costs at receiving schools, enhancement of learning opportunities, equitable allocation of resources, options for disposition of closed sites and effects on integration, among other issues.

"With no better alternative suggested by the plaintiffs … the court finds the district has taken a balanced approach to address the budget deficit," Bury wrote. "It is impossible to ignore the fiscal realities faced by TUSD today."

Bury did say, however, the finding is rushed by fiscal necessity and put forth stipulations for moving forward as recommended by a court-appointed Special Master Willis Hawley.

The recommendations include:

• Assuring students moving from a closed school receive, at minimum, the same or comparable levels of services that they received in their former school - especially English-language learners, special education and gifted students.

• Allocating extra financial resources for support services for incoming and current students enrolled in D- or C-rated receiving schools to mitigate the negative effects of the transition.

• Receiving schools should receive preferred consideration for resources to support extracurricular activities.

• Receiving schools should not turn to portable classrooms to accommodate the influx of students from closed schools.

• Undertaking a study of the effects of the school closures.

There were also specific recommendations for Howenstine, where more than half the student body have specialized needs.

For those particular students, it was recommended students be moved to "least restrictive learning environments" and if possible, attempt to provide smaller school environments.

In reviewing the plaintiffs' objections, Hawley considered whether the closures would negatively affect future options for achieving greater integration and whether there were better schools available as receiving schools.

Hawley reported to Bury a few cases where a better choice either for integration or for a better-rated school was arguable. But in each instance, the alternative school was either lower performing, racially concentrated, and/or was at or very near capacity.

"There was no clear better option," Bury wrote. "The Special Master found the district made reasonable choices, which this court notes does not mean they were easy choices."

While Bury did not grant the plaintiffs' request, Rubin Salter Jr., an attorney for the black plaintiffs, felt their concerns were heard.

"The judge agreed our concerns were legitimate," Salter said. "There is still some uncertainty about the receiving schools and whether the students will have equal opportunities."

Nonetheless, Salter is confident Hawley will ensure the recommendations are implemented.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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