In what he describes as a show of good will, TUSD’s new Superintendent H.T. Sanchez plans to shut down the entire district to give employees more time with their families over the upcoming winter break.
But in order to make it happen, staff members will have to use their own personal, vacation or comp time, or take unpaid leave.
Only critical functions — like security, maintenance and payroll — will continue operations as needed with a thin staff. Sports teams are also impacted by the closure, having to adhere to strict practice schedules.
Sanchez, who started circulating the idea two months ago, said he has gotten only positive responses to the plan. But one unhappy TUSD parent has started an online petition drive over the strict limits that will be imposed on sports teams practicing during the closure.
Sanchez wants to ensure Tucson Unified School District employees “take time off, relax and spend time with their families” during the break, which runs from Dec. 23 through Jan. 3 — for students, the first day of vacation is Dec. 20.
The idea to shut down virtually all district functions and facilities stems from conversations Sanchez has had with some employees who have expressed interest in having the time off, he said. While teachers already have that time off written into their contracts, other year-round employees do not.
“As I looked at it, it made sense to give our 12-month employees the same opportunity to rest, spend time with family, enjoy the holidays and travel if they chose to,” Sanchez said. “It’s really about being responsive to the people who are taking care of our kids. When we come back in January, we’ll all be a bit more refreshed.”
In an effort to facilitate the change, TUSD sent a memo to affected employees two months ago, advising them of the time the district will be closed so they could decide if they wanted to use their existing time off or if they wanted to work more hours to bank time to ensure they would have a paycheck over the winter break, Sanchez said.
Since then, Sanchez said he hasn’t received any negative feedback about the change. Rather, it has primarily been positive, with many questioning why it hasn’t been done before.
The same can’t be said when it comes to the change for TUSD athletics practice time, which will impact girls and boys basketball, soccer and wrestling.
Unlike in past years, when practices were more at the discretion of the teams and coaches, the district has scheduled six practice days during the winter break, giving teams four-hour blocks on each of those days.
Because the practices are scheduled, it is expected that utility savings of about $190,000 will be achieved because lights and heat will be on only part of the day, said TUSD spokeswoman Cara Rene.
The schedule has been reviewed by TUSD’s Interscholastic Department, which deemed it appropriate for ensuring student-athletes continue to practice and stay conditioned.
“Student-athletes will have the chance to practice in an amount of time comparable to that when school is in session,” Rene said.
But dictating the days and times teams have to practice creates a hardship for coaches and gives other teams in other districts without such restrictions an unfair advantage, said John Lane, the parent of a Sahuaro High School basketball player, who first learned about the change in scheduling on Nov. 8.
After talking to a number of other upset parents, Lane decided to set up an online petition to see how others felt. In a week’s time, he gathered 150 signatures.
“Limiting practice time for TUSD athletes only reduces team cohesiveness and gives other districts an unfair advantage,” one person — Karianne Nicholson — commented on the petition. “Let each team, coach and athlete’s family decide on their own.”
While Lane acknowledges the scheduling could work for some sports, he says it won’t work for all.
“Sometimes if practice is going well, it can be cut short, but if students are struggling, they may need more time, and the coach won’t have the ability to extend,” Lane said, adding that coaches often have other jobs and responsibilities that may not fit into the assigned four-hour window.
“Our coach always makes sure our kids have time with their families during the break, but it’s our kids calling him asking him to open the gym early or to stay late,” Lane said. “Our kids want to be in the gym.”