Tucson Unified looking at closing unused classrooms next

2013-04-07T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T08:47:33Z Tucson Unified looking at closing unused classrooms nextAlexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Schools that have managed to steer clear of the TUSD closure chopping block may now be subject to having classrooms shut.

The Tucson Unified School District is currently considering closing off hundreds of empty classrooms and portables that are not essential for instruction as part of its effort to chip away at a $17 million budget shortfall.

The project, which is expected to be completed before the beginning of the school year, could yield an annual savings of at least $700,000.

"We identify the fact that excess capacity results in excess maintenance costs, like custodial maintenance of the space and excess utilities," said TUSD Chief Operations Officer Candy Egbert.

Last school year, TUSD spent $20.8 million on utilities - $13.7 million of which went toward electricity. The custodial budget was $9.7 million.

To reduce those costs, wings of schools could be isolated, lights would be shut off and temperatures would be adjusted to a level beyond what would be comfortable in a classroom full of students, Egbert said.

The district is not prepared to say what schools will see closures because it is still evaluating plans.

But Egbert said one high school with a number of empty classroom in a wing dedicated entirely to science could move math classes into those spaces, allowing the old math wing to be closed off.

The isolated areas would not be maintained by custodians, resulting in a reduction of the number of positions assigned to serve buildings. Egbert could not say how many jobs may be cut.

A study analyzing the square footage left in the district, the number of classrooms available and projected enrollments has produced a list of 64 candidate schools with a combined 498 classrooms, and 151 district-owned portable buildings.

The number of classrooms that could be closed vary by campus, ranging from one to 56 per school.

The school at the highest end of that range is Santa Rita High School, 3951 S. Pantano Road, which has a capacity of 2,070 students, but serves only 923.

Santa Rita was most recently considered for closure in the fall, meeting the criteria in academics and size.

The school was spared, but the issue of excess space still needs to be addressed.

Santa Rita Principal Chris Bonn uses empty classrooms in various ways including as computer labs, for professional development training and as office space for district student-support services.

Bonn said he has at least one empty classroom on each floor of three buildings.

Closing an entire wing would likely result in a need to move district support services, computer labs and possibly other specialized classrooms to another building or off site, Bonn said.

"I know change is difficult but I would support more efficient use of our facilities so we aren't forced to eliminate programs or valuable staff important to the comprehensive nature of our school," Bonn said. "I am in support of any ideas that would allow us to protect programs and staff that directly interact or impact students."

District officials are visiting campuses to determine whether the spaces being considered really are unnecessary before making any final decisions.

Also under consideration is closing off portable buildings, which were purchased for schools that were once bursting at the seams and needed the extra space.

As enrollment has declined and other variables have come into play, space within buildings has been freed up, allowing students to move there, Egbert said.

One example is Lynn/Urquides Elementary School, 1573 W. Ajo Way, with nearly two dozen portable buildings.

The opening of TUSD's newest school - the Mary Belle McCorkle Academy of Excellence K-8 - about a mile away has resulted in the closing of some of Lynn's portables, Egbert said.

"For quite some time, every single portable on the Lynn/Urquides campus was in use and the building was very full, but with the opening of McCorkle, we've been able to provide classrooms for students in the building," she said.

While the opening of the new school has freed up space, Lynn/Urquides is still over capacity, with the building able to accommodate only 620 of the school's 643 students.

Even though portables are being closed off, it is unlikely that the district will haul the units away any time soon, said Egbert. She said at one point there was a market for the structures, but she's not sure if that is still the case.

The district does plan to consider options to dispose of the less efficient buildings, Egbert said.

"Many of the principals I've encountered recognize the value this could add to the resources we have for our schools," Egbert said.

While some principals would like to see some of the savings funneled directly into their site budgets, Egbert said, the vision in this project is much broader.

"We expect the savings to go as much as possible back into resources for the classroom, but right now we're looking at it from a district perspective," she said. "Every dollar we can save gives us more flexibility to replace resources for classrooms districtwide, not school by school.

"Some schools are full and others have space we can consolidate, but we need to look at this in the aggregate."

All levels - elementary, middle and high schools, along with district offices - are being considered. The biggest closures would occur in high schools because they have the most classrooms.

"We expect the savings to go as much as possible back into resources for the classroom, but right now we're looking at it from a district perspective. Every dollar we can save gives us more flexibility to replace resources for classrooms districtwide, not school by school."

Candy Egbert,

TUSD chief operations officer

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

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