Facing what officials call an "alarming" financial outlook, the Tucson Unified School District is once again considering closing more schools.
The option is being considered for the 2013-2014 school year as enrollment and state funding continue to decline.
The idea includes not only closing schools, but building newer, larger schools - an expense that TUSD could ask taxpayers to cover through a bond election.
On average, TUSD has been losing about 1,500 students annually during the last several years. The loss has been attributed to a decrease in the number of school-age children living within TUSD boundaries, flight to charter schools, the downturn in the economy and a change in immigration policies.
TUSD, which serves about 51,000 students, has 13,000 empty seats - roughly the population of the fourth-largest district in the Tucson area, Marana.
That, coupled with a projected $17 million deficit for the 2013-2014 school year has resulted in a situation in which the cost to run Tucson's largest school district is greater than the revenue coming in.
For the upcoming school year, TUSD will have $255 million in revenue, but the cost to run the district will be $273 million.
Governing Board members, presented with the information in several study sessions, had mixed reactions.
No campuses have been identified for closure and other options to include salary cuts, massive layoffs, severe increases in class sizes and a reduction in programming have been discussed. Nine schools were closed in 2010.
The issue will be brought back to the board at its June 26 meeting, where administrators hope to get direction from the board as to what the best option is.
Superintendent John Pedicone said the implementation of a long-term strategic plan is needed to "create an environment where affordability and quality can exist."
"It's a reality that the current district school facility configuration cannot be sustained past 2012-2013 without significant reductions in operating costs," Pedicone said. "The financial cliff that awaits us in 2013-2014 is significant."
TUSD Chief Financial Officer Yousef Awwad said even if the district were to fill all of its empty seats, the cost to operate would still exceed the revenue coming in by about $11 million.
The district receives on average $4,900 per student each year in state funding.
Even eliminating the central administration - a suggestion often made by members of the public - would not close the financial gap, Pedicone said.
Though there are various options on the table to close the deficit, the one being recommended by Pedicone is to create "optimally sized schools," which involves closing campuses.
At the elementary level, an optimally sized school would serve 400 to 650 children; a middle school would serve 750 to 1,000 students; and high schools would serve 1,000 to 3,000.
In TUSD, the average elementary school serves 363 students; the average middle school serves 595; and the average high school serves 1,361.
To create these optimal schools, the district would identify three or four underenrolled schools and schools built for small number of students.
One site would be selected among the group that has the most appealing location and campus size, and that site would be razed to build a school that would support more students and would be better suited for the 21st century.
Board member Adelita Grijalva was apprehensive about the concept.
"What I'm a little bit concerned about, is the idea of closing schools - we've done it," she said. "I don't know if it's just me, but I haven't sensed that it's really alleviated a lot.
"I just worry about our idea of having this optimal size may not be the optimal size that our parents want, so we might lose more students."
However, Pedicone countered that in addition to being optimal financially, larger schools offer increased options for classroom configurations and learning opportunities.
He said there have been positive effects of the closure of nine schools in 2010 - to include an annual savings of $3.2 million, saying the district would have faced this financial cliff much earlier.
While TUSD has managed to unload six of the nine campuses through lease or sale, three still sit vacant and have been vandalized.
Should the district close more schools, TUSD acknowledges it would not likely be able to sell or lease anymore of them.
As a result, the district would have to determine which schools are in the best position to be future sites should growth return to the district, and mothball those schools.
It could also work with the city and county to consider land use such as parks and walking paths, which would be beneficial to neighborhoods.
"School closure has often been viewed as a betrayal and creates an extremely negative response from the very people from whom we need loyalty and support," Pedicone said.
Instead, Pedicone hopes that a process like the one being recommended, which takes both financial and academic concerns into consideration, will turn the situation into "an asset" rather than creating the feeling of "taking something away."
When discussing how the district would pay for the new facilities, Pedicone offered a "radical" suggestion of seeking a bond election in fall 2013.
Board President Mark Stegeman was not convinced a bond election would be approved by the public.
"I think politically there's no possibility of passing a facilities bond," Stegeman said. "Personally, I'm having a difficult time supporting an option that assumes that."
Board member Miguel Cuevas disagreed, saying the district does have credibility in the area of bond elections as it has proven that it can spend the funds attached to a bond as intended.
"It's unfortunate you're being so critical," Cuevas said to Stegeman. "We've had a successful bond program and it's very marketable. I think it's viable."
Did you know?
In 2010, TUSD closed the following schools as a cost-saving measure: Duffy Elementary, Fort Lowell Elementary, Jefferson Park Elementary, Reynolds Elementary, Richey Elementary, Roberts Elementary, Rogers Elementary, Van Horne Elementary and Wrightstown Elementary.
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4175.