A Tucson Unified School District board member is accusing a state lawmaker and a neighboring school superintendent of crafting a “backroom deal” to allow the Vail Unified School District to annex TUSD’s Santa Rita High School.
TUSD Governing Board Member Michael Hicks said a bill introduced by Republican state Rep. Todd Clodfelter of Tucson that would require school districts to essentially hand over any campus that is at less than 25 percent capacity to a high-performing neighboring school district is “part of the systematic dismantling of Tucson Unified School District.”
But Clodfelter brushed off the criticism as a “conspiracy theory,” and Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker said there was nothing backroom about the way the bill was crafted.
HB 2524 would require the Arizona School Facilities Board to take over any campus that is at less than 25 percent of its capacity and would offer the school to a neighboring district for 10 percent of its assessed value, provided that district has an A, B or C rating, is growing and the district governing board votes to accept the annexed school.
The bill, which is up for its first committee hearing in the House Education Committee on Monday, is setting off an east-side turf war between the Tucson and Vail school districts over the fate of Santa Rita , 3951 S. Pantano Road.
While the bill would apply to any school that is operating at less than 25 percent of its capacity, Clodfelter acknowledges it’s aimed squarely at allowing Vail to take over Santa Rita. He said he doesn’t know of any other schools that are below 25 percent capacity.
Santa Rita currently has about 450 students, although it was designed for more than 2,000. The School Facilities Board, which calculates capacity differently than TUSD, says the school has a capacity for 2,600, meaning the school is officially only 17 percent full.
Clodfelter said his bill is aimed at solving a problem: The Vail district is growing rapidly and needs a new high school to accommodate all of its students. At the same time, TUSD is struggling with declining enrollment that has left many of its schools well below capacity.
Clodfelter said allowing Vail to take over TUSD’s most-underpopulated high school for pennies on the dollar would save taxpayers tens of millions compared to building a new school in Vail, which would likely cost upwards of $80 million.
“This school is only a mile or so down the road from the Vail border, and it’s underutilized. So rather than building a new facility, how about letting Vail have access to Santa Rita? … That’ll save the taxpayers millions of dollars and should increase the performance level of that school,” Clodfelter said.
But Baker, the Vail superintendent, isn’t holding out hope that the bill will become law.
“There are so many political and legal hurdles on this that we’re not banking on it,” he said.
Baker said he thinks the district will push ahead with plans to build its own high school and may start looking to push a bond election, possibly as early as this year, to supplement the $22 million in state funds it has already been promised to build a new school.
That’s not to say Vail wouldn’t consider taking over Santa Rita if the bill does pass, however. Right now, all five high schools in Vail are above or near capacity.
“We are actively and aggressively pursuing a solution to our shortage of space for high school students,” Baker said, noting he didn’t ask Clodfelter to sponsor the bill, though he’s generally supportive and has provided some feedback.
Meanwhile, TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo has big plans for Santa Rita that he hopes will boost the school’s enrollment enough to make the bill a moot point.
He plans to present a proposal to the TUSD Governing Board this week to turn Santa Rita into a career and technical-education hub, focusing on cybersecurity and coding.
“That will be a multi-year process to gradually fill the school, but of course we are aiming for an immediate influx of students in the next school year,” he said.
But Clodfelter said TUSD has had its chance to shore up enrollment at Santa Rita, which has been well below capacity for more than a decade, and currently has a D grade from the state.
He said Vail is, simply put, a better school district than TUSD, and shifting Santa Rita into Vail boundaries would give students a better chance at success.
And Clodfelter said he didn’t have much faith in TUSD’s “dream” of building a career and technical-education hub, and he questioned the logic in putting a hub out on Tucson’s far southeast side.
He said he didn’t want to start a turf war between the two school districts, and noted that as a Sahuaro High School graduate himself, he knows TUSD has some great schools — “just not enough of them.”
“I’m not trying to screw TUSD. If I was, I’d put a bill together to break them into four or five pieces. And that’s crossed my mind, I’ll tell you that,” Clodfelter said.
Enrollment has been spiraling down at TUSD in general, and at Santa Rita specifically, for years. The school has gone from nearly 1,100 students in 2011, to about 450 this year. The district has lost about 13,000 students in that time.
But Trujillo said if the district did want to sell Santa Rita due to declining enrollment — which he emphasized is not the plan — it could put it on the open market and get a fair price for it, and use that money to renovate other schools.
Under Clodfelter’s bill, TUSD would receive only 10 percent of the school’s assessed value. The full cash value of the property and facilities is nearly $20 million, according to the Pima County Assessor’s Office.
“Ten cents on the dollar is just not enough,“ Trujillo said.
The bill also stipulates that a district can annex a school only if it also changes district boundaries to include the annexed school. But Baker said Vail likely isn’t interested in expanding its district boundaries — but rather operating the school as an island within TUSD.
Trujillo argued that the bill needs a lot of work to iron out its host of problems, including how it would deal with issues like brand-new high schools that start out with only one grade.
He questioned whether it was even legal to give a school, which was paid for by TUSD taxpayers, to another district at a steep discount.
Clodfelter said the bill is a work in progress and he’s considering amendments to strike the requirement that a school district change its boundaries, and to allow the School Facilities Board to give a district a grace period to get school enrollment up.
But Trujillo said even with tweaks, the concept of the bill takes away local control over the school system and would allow a Phoenix-based School Facilities Board to make decisions that would greatly impact Tucson.
Clodfelter fired back that TUSD has squandered opportunities to improve itself time and time again, and at some point, state lawmakers should be concerned about the district wasting school resources.
“When TUSD says, ‘We want local control,’ you gotta say, ‘Well you’ve had local control for the last 50 years. Where are you now?’”