TUSD school closings won't yield full savings

Many expenses combine to dim district's financial projections
2012-12-09T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T08:46:21Z TUSD school closings won't yield full savingsAlexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
December 09, 2012 12:00 am  • 

While TUSD stands to save about $5 million from shutting 14 campuses, the closures come at a price - about $1.4 million if all are approved.

The cost includes moving expenses, renovations to receiving schools and securing campuses to prevent the sites from falling into disrepair or becoming targets of vandalism, as happened two years ago when the Governing Board approved the closures of nine schools.

The cost of maintaining the still-vacant sites is roughly $50,000 each per year. That include utilities, security and repairs.

The outlook for repurposing even more closed school buildings isn't too promising, either.

Of the nine schools closed in 2010, three remain vacant and a proposed redevelopment project for a fourth campus has fallen through.

Tucson Unified School District Superintendent John Pedicone isn't confident he will have much success unloading new closed properties immediately.

"Two years ago, there was a heightened expectation that we would be able to get each of those schools disposed of and find people who would want to lease them or that we could work out joint relationships with," Pedicone said.

For the most part, that occurred with four of the sites being leased for various educational purposes, and one site was repurposed to house TUSD's own community service programs.

Another, Wrightstown Elementary School, was to have been sold in May for $1.59 million to be used to build luxury rental homes. However, the sale was never finalized, with the developer stopping the proposed project several weeks ago citing concerns by neighbors over traffic issues and home values.

The developer, Roger Karber, underestimated how high emotions would continue to run over the disposition of Wrightstown nearly two years after the fact, he said.

"I thought people had dealt emotionally with it, but it was made clear to me that they were still pretty upset that the school closed," Karber said. "If it had happened in my neighborhood, I might feel the same way."

Having promised early in the process that his company, Alta Vista Communities LLC, would not move forward if the neighborhood felt it was not in its best interest, Karber withdrew the offer. The district still owns the property.

He is currently reworking his proposal, which could include a mix of luxury homes for rent and for sale, or possibly all for sale, he said. Any new proposal will have to be approved by the TUSD board.

"The community really needs to work this out," Karber said. "It's hard to change what you've been used to for decades, but it has to be done. It's a valuable resource."

One option the TUSD board has not necessarily approved of thus far is selling closed properties to charter schools, despite high offers.

According to Pedicone, aside from the obvious concern of losing more students to charters, the board has the community's welfare in mind.

"When you give one of our schools to a charter, there's nothing that requires the charter school to continue to do what it's doing," Pedicone said. "They can make a commitment to put a school there and in time sell that building to somebody else that will not have the same level of sensitivity."

Nonetheless, Pedicone is hopeful that the district will find other uses for the campuses and believes that with 13,000 empty seats, closures are in the best interest of the children.

"When we're spending money to keep school buildings operating at the expense of the services we should be providing to all students across the district, we don't do the job we should be doing," Pedicone said.

"That's a hard thing for people to grasp when they're in the throes and realize it's their school on the docket."

On StarNet: Find more education and TUSD news and resources at azstarnet.com/news/local/education

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

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