A legislative panel offered tepid support Monday to a bill to would allow the Vail Unified School District to take over TUSD’s Santa Rita High School, pitting the school districts against each other in a fight for the east-side campus.
But Republican lawmakers on the Arizona House Education Committee warned the bill’s sponsor, Republican Rep. Todd Clodfelter of Tucson, that they’ll only support the bill further if it is changed to make the annexation consensual.
HB 2524 is aimed at allowing Vail, a high-performing district which is overpopulated and in need of a new high school, to take over TUSD’s underpopulated and underperforming Santa Rita High School.
Specifically, it would require the Arizona School Facilities Board to take over any public school campus that is at less than 25 percent of its capacity and repay the district 10 percent of the school’s assessed value. Any neighboring district’s governing board could then vote to take over the school, provided that district has an A, B or C rating, and is growing.
Santa Rita, which currently has about 450 students, although it was designed for more than 2,000, is one of several underpopulated high schools in TUSD. The nearby Vail district, meanwhile, is growing rapidly and has been looking into the possibility of building a new high school, which would likely cost upwards of $80 million.
The committee voted 9-8 to advance the measure , but several Republican lawmakers warned Clodfelter that they wanted to see it amended to ensure it doesn’t create a hostile takeover.
“My preference would be TUSD and Vail would sit down and make a deal. But unfortunately, sometimes there are egos and emotional connections involved that prevent common sense from prevailing.
“This is where leaders like ourselves step in,” Clodfelter told committee members.
TUSD does not want to give up Santa Rita, and it’s unclear whether Vail wants it under the conditions set in the bill.
Under the bill, taking over the school would require Vail to change its district boundaries — and that would require a vote of the qualified electors in the Santa Rita High neighborhood to join Vail.
Vail Superintendent Calvin Baker said the district likely isn’t interested in changing its boundaries and would rather operate the school as an island inside TUSD’s boundaries.
TUSD, meanwhile, has plans for Santa Rita. The TUSD Governing Board will hear a proposal Tuesday on turning it into a career and technical-education hub, focusing on cybersecurity and coding, which Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo hopes will boost enrollment enough to make the bill a moot point.
TUSD’s contract lobbyist, John Kelly, told the committee that bill will hasten those plans.
“In that sense, the bill is already successful. You don’t need to move it any further,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Lela Alston of Phoenix called the bill “absolutely unfair” because it would force a school district and its taxpayers to essentially give away its property for a fraction of its value.
“I don’t know what happened to local control. I sit on a school board, and I think the taxpayers of my district would go nuts if we were forced to basically just give away our property,” Alston said.
The full cash value of the Santa Rita property and facilities is nearly $20 million, according to the Pima County Assessor’s Office. Under Clodfelter’s bill, TUSD would receive only 10 percent of the school’s assessed value, or about $2 million.
But Clodfelter argued that 10 percent reflects what the district has sold other schools for, since oftentimes the facilities are scrapped and the land redeveloped.
And he noted that Santa Rita’s underenrollment means taxpayers are spending about twice as much per student to operate that school compared with some other high schools in the district.
“Your job and my job as state legislators is to help facilitate the best education possible to our students, our kids, with the least cost possible to our taxpayers.
“If we don’t come up with some other plan to allow these districts to start shifting around, I think we’re going to find ourselves in a world of hurt financially,” Clodfelter told the committee.
The bill must still clear the House Rules Committee before receiving a vote from the full House.