The days of school closures may not be behind Tucson’s largest school district after an efficiency audit found 14,000 empty seats.

The number is enough to house the entire neighboring Amphitheater Public Schools, prompting a recommendation to right-size the Tucson Unified School District.

The recommendation is part of a $300,000 efficiency audit conducted by an external consultant, Gibson Consulting Group Inc. The audit was requested by TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez to identify opportunities to improve efficiency and achieve cost savings.

“The decisions to make these changes are going to be tough ones,” Sanchez told the TUSD Governing Board on Tuesday. “You will be asked to make changes in areas where people have been accustomed to things being a certain way. ... The easiest decision is inaction for fear that folks might get upset. As long as we’re acting with purpose and moving past ineffective past practices, that’s the work of leadership.”

The auditors noted many well-known realities, including the fact that Arizona spends less per pupil — $7,496 — compared with the national average of $11,068; that state funding has been on the decline; and that the exodus of students from TUSD over the last decade has cost the district about $50 million in funding.

The audit also addressed what is perhaps one of TUSD’s greatest inefficiencies — its error-prone, paper-driven systems in human resources, payroll and benefits. After the district hastily purchased a $10 million software program that turned out to be a bad fit, the Gibson Consulting Group recommended that TUSD use a specific process to select the right software — a step that the district has previously admitted to skipping before.

Since then, over the last two years, TUSD has worked to streamline inefficient business practices. The district has held off on committing to a new system, instead preferring to see what recommendations would come from the efficiency audit.

Taking into account the continuous decline in student enrollment, it comes as no surprise that auditors would recommend evaluating school capacities and considering closures. Already, TUSD has shut nearly two dozen campuses in the name of budget cuts.

While the recommendation was made, no specific schools were identified for closure during the presentation to the Governing Board, and the district did not release a copy of the full report before the meeting.

TUSD was also encouraged to cut its staff in the finance office to be more comparable to similar-sized school systems, although it was unclear how many positions would have to go to achieve that goal. The reduction would be made possible with the implementation of streamlined software the district plans to purchase.

Other recommendations include implementing performance measures and targets to improve accountability and transparency for the district’s strategic plan; adding an internal audit function that reports directly to the Governing Board; enhancing the district’s preventive maintenance program to lengthen the life of facilities; additional energy conservation measures; new bus routing and scheduling software to optimize routing efficiency; renegotiating labor agreements to pay bus drivers and monitors for actual hours worked; increasing custodial staffing and equipment; and replacing school buses.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.