Hundreds of children, parents, educators and community members flooded the Catalina Magnet High School auditorium Saturday morning with a common purpose: to save their schools.
The speakers urged board members to find another way to deal with a $17 million budget deficit - cut central administration, outsource jobs, consolidate departments. If absolutely necessary, they said, close a few schools - just not the ones their kids attend.
The Tucson Unified School District Governing Board heard arguments against campus closures for nearly three hours, but, as planned, did not respond to any of the feedback or take any action.
The board is considering closing 14 campuses, which would generate a savings of about $5 million a year. Other program and staff cuts will still need to be considered to balance the budget of Tucson's largest school district.
Closure has been initiated on these schools: Brichta, Corbett, Cragin, Lyons, Manzo, Menlo Park, Schumaker and Sewell elementary schools; Carson, Hohokam, Maxwell and Wakefield middle schools; Fort Lowell/Townsend K-8; and Howenstine High School.
"Clean your own house before you come and close our schools," said Kerry Hodgkinson, a Brichta parent who was the first of more than three dozen speakers. The Governing Board allowed three representatives from each school to make a statement.
Hodgkinson, who recommended consolidating various service centers, also suggested keeping Brichta and Menlo Park open but shutting Maxwell - a site already zoned for homes, she said.
But the school-closure process hasn't been completely divisive. Sharmila Dey, a Cragin fifth-grader, started a letter-writing campaign to save her school, gathering more than 100 letters and pictures that were submitted to the board.
Rafael and Maria Barajas, parents of seven children, don't even have a school on the closure list but came in support of their neighborhood middle school, Wakefield. The couple was also concerned about a group of four west-side schools on the list.
"We don't want to watch any schools close in that area," Maria Barajas said.
Added her husband: "I felt good about some of the comments I heard from parents and teachers. They made good points as far as the programs, the activities and the struggles they've had to bring their schools up. Whether that's going to change the board's mind, I don't know."
Other school supporters leaned more on facts, arguing that their schools don't fit the criteria for closure, which include academic performance, occupancy and attraction rates.
Sewell Elementary father Dan Stoker noted that his daughter's school was given a grade of B by the state, but one of the two schools that would receive Sewell students is rated C. If the closure is approved, Stoker, like a number of parents who spoke, threatened to enroll his child in a school outside of the district.
TUSD attributes the deficit to a drop in student enrollment over the years and cuts in state funding, among other reasons.
Public-education advocate Ann-Eve Pedersen agreed, urging the crowd to continue its fight beyond the local level.
"The state Legislature is really the true enemy," she said, noting that Arizona has cut $1 billion in education funding. "They are fighting against our kids, our schools and our communities. This is a situation that threatens to tear our community apart, and it's happening in other parts of the state. ... Other districts are having to look at closing schools because of these numbers."
A second public hearing is scheduled for Monday at 6 p.m. at Catalina, 3645 E. Pima St. The vote to finalize any closures is expected Dec. 20.
If approved, closures would not go into effect until next school year.
Closed schools: Where are they now
In 2010, TUSD closed nine elementary schools as a cost-savings measure. Each closure saved $300,000 to $450,000 annually in maintenance and operating costs. Of the nine, four remain vacant.
• Duffy Elementary: Houses TUSD community service programs.
• Fort Lowell Elementary: Leased to Chabad of Tucson for up to $93,000 per year for an early-childhood center.
• Jefferson Park Elementary: Leased to the International School of Tucson - a tuition-based independent school - for up to $100,000 per year.
• Reynolds Elementary: Vacant. No viable proposals.
• Richey Elementary: Leased to the Pascua Yaqui Tribe for $1 per year as a community center for health, wellness, adult education and recreation. TUSD and the tribe will also open a charter school on the property.
• Roberts Elementary: Leased to Pima Community College for up to $130,000 per year to house the adult education program, the Public Safety and Emergency Services Institute and other services.
• Rogers Elementary: Vacant. No viable proposals.
• Van Horne Elementary: Vacant. Three proposals for lease/sale as a church, sustainability center, or urban agriculture under consideration.
• Wrightstown Elementary: Vacant. Was to have been sold to Alta Vista Communities for $1.59 million to build luxury rental homes. Alta Vista withdrew the offer due to lack of support for the plan amendment and rezoning. The district still owns the property.
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at email@example.com or 573-4175.