A high school serving many underprivileged, disabled and refugee students could be evicted from its campus next year to make room for a school of academically gifted students under a proposal the Tucson Unified Governing Board is set to consider Tuesday.

In a move that pits three high schools against one another in a fight over two campuses, the district Governing Board is considering removing Catalina High School students from their campus in order to give it to University High School students.

UHS currently shares a campus with Rincon High School, but it is a separate and independent school for exclusively for gifted students who can pass its rigorous admission requirements.

Under the proposal, Catalina would no longer exist, and its students would be largely absorbed into Rincon, filling the void left behind as University moves out.

Tension and uncertainty are high in the three schools and two campuses, which are less than three miles apart, but reflect the wildly different realities of the students who attend them.

Teachers are wary to sign contracts for next school year without knowing what they’re getting into. Parents are reluctant to enroll freshmen in schools that may change dramatically, or not even exist, by the time their children graduate. Students are worried about losing their friends, teachers, clubs, sports teams — and about their futures hanging in the balance of a TUSD Governing Board vote.

The district’s handling of the issue has been divisive and set up a Darwinian fight between schools, says Sylvia Campoy, representative for the Latino plaintiffs in the district’s longstanding desegregation case.

“What struck me is that once again, the district has set up a process that has pitted school against school. Which is horrible for a district that is supposed to be unified,” she said.

Representative for the plaintiffs in the case against TUSD haven’t officially weighed in on the proposal, though the district noted in preliminary conversations, the plaintiffs have expressed concerns.

And those concerns could derail the consolidation proposal, as the district will need approval from a federal court to proceed.

Gripes and concerns

The three schools pleaded their cases in a document prepared by the schools’ site councils, which includes the principals, teachers and students, that was recently delivered to the district Governing Board and obtained by the Arizona Daily Star through a public records request.

All three schools have gripes, and the Governing Board has no easy answers.

The Catalina High School community largely sees the proposal as an injustice: The district wants to take away a school from minority, lower-income, often disadvantaged and struggling kids, just to make more space for the “smart kids.” They argue that the advantages to UHS are minor and petty compared to the setbacks the the relocation and consolidation would cause to Catalina’s students.

“Many of our students have already experienced significant displacement and incredible instability. They have had homes, countries, parents, education, and necessities torn from them, sometimes repeatedly . . . Forcing these students to be uprooted, once again, is morally inappropriate and detrimental to their future success,” school leaders wrote in their report to the Governing Board.

The Rincon High School community is worried about losing UHS as a neighbor and collaborator that helped sponsor more advanced classes, clubs and sports to Rincon students. School leaders say UHS has, to some degree, rubbed off on Rincon and inspired students to take school more seriously and work harder. Bringing in Catalina students would likely cause test scores at Rincon to drop, disciplinary incidents to rise and students to leave.

“Taking UHS off Rincon’s campus and combining Rincon with Catalina will create an entirely different blend of students. While academics is the number one priority at Rincon, student integration will inevitably consume a great deal of time, energy and focus,” school leaders wrote.

But the UHS community believes that after more than three decades of essentially squatting on Rincon’s campus, students have earned the right to their own school, their own identity, their own fight song. They say UHS is the one of TUSD’s achievements, and should be celebrated, expanded and replicated, not forced to share a overcrowded campus with another school.

“UHS students would be able to embrace and celebrate the identity of their school. This would lead to an increase in school spirit, student-centered activities, and participation in traditional high school events . . . The status quo does not help to address larger problems that the district is currently facing, including declining enrollment, inefficient use of district facilities, and financial instability,” school leaders wrote.

Building a new high school is out of the question — TUSD is struggling financially, and voters last month rejected a $180 bond package that would have only allowed the district the most basic upkeep on schools.

And UHS has objected to taking over other vacant elementary schools, saying those schools don’t have the athletic facilities or space the school would need.

UHS campus idea not new

Two of the three schools want nothing to do with the plan, and that several of TUSD’s departments warn it could be incredibly expensive and even harmful to the students, the site council reports show.

But UHS, and its frequently well connected supporters, hold a lot of clout in the district, and had a significant head start in their campaign to take over Catalina.

The push to give UHS its own campus has been in the works for decades, with stops and starts.

Most recently, the District Governing board ordered school supporters to come up with a draft plan to found their own campus. UHS examined several sites, but settled on Catalina, and presented the draft of their proposal to take over Catalina at a district governing board meeting on Oct. 3, where the school received initial support from the governing board majority, including Mike Hicks, Mark Stegeman and Rachael Sedgwick, who voted to advance and further study UHS’ proposal.

But neither Catalina nor Rincon was invited to speak at that meeting, nor did either school have a chance to weigh in on UHS’ draft plan.

Critics say the one-sided presentation, and its enthusiastic support from the Governing Board majority, was symbolic of the larger problem: That the Governing Board seemed to be set on handing over a campus to UHS, without ever hearing the possible downsides from Catalina and Rincon, which represent almost two-thirds of the student population.

Sandy Elers, president of the Catalina High Foundation and a Catalina alumna, said the way the Governing Board authorized UHS to pursue the issue without having consulted the Catalina community was unfair and shows the board’s biases.

“Due process was not used at all. And everyone was horrified at the suddenness and the finality of the move. The kids basically found out on the internet. And they feel defeated. ‘Why should we bother? Why not drop out now instead of waiting until next year when we lose our school?’” she said.

Catalina Principal Antasio Holley declined requests to comment for this article.

Rincon principal Alissa Welch said the process has led to parents asking questions that she doesn’t have enough information to answer, and left many of her teachers concerned that they didn’t have a voice in the initial planning.

“I think the frustration came from the fact that there was one proposal presented, instead of a lot of people being able to bring various proposals to be presented — that if this was something the district wanted to explore, couldn’t various proposals have been looked at before they decided on which one they were going to invest in researching?” she said.

But UHS principal Amy Cislak said while her students deserve their own school, she would never want that to come on the backs of other students in the district.

She said the parents, alumni and school officials who prepared the initial proposal looked at a lot of schools and factors, and came up with a plan that made the most sense for UHS. While she agreed Catalina should have been consulted earlier, her job is to advocate for what’s best for her own students and parents, and her students and parents want their own campus.

“I understand why Catalina initially felt that way because they weren’t brought into the report, but I think now more than ever they’re really being heard and their information is being shared, which is really positive thing so that all three schools have a voice,” she said.

On Tuesday, the school board will debate the issue, and is expected to vote on whether to proceed.

The meeting will offer Catalina and Rincon their first chance to publicly push back against the plan.

Costly proposal

The proposal comes as the school district is facing declining enrollment numbers that will force it to cut between $4.5 and $6 million this school year.

The move, and accompanying construction and renovations, would cost between $5 and $8 million, according to the district’s finance department.

Opening UHS to a larger student population, many of whom would likely cross district lines or leave charter schools and bring additional state per pupil funding with them to TUSD, would bring in an additional $127,000 to $1.5 million, according to estimates.

But that increase may or may not be enough to offset the additional ongoing costs associated with the new configuration, which district officials estimate will total an additional $900,000 per year.

Even in a best-case scenario, the increased enrollment at UHS would take roughly a decade to cover the cost of the move.

“Plain and simple, the cost involved in making such a move that only benefits a small faction of TUSD’s population is a concern ... especially when parents and students from both schools have expressed that they are not all in support of this move,” Rincon leaders wrote in their report to the Governing Board.

And while the proposal prizes enrollment growth at UHS, some argue that growth comes at the expense of the rest of the district.

The criticism leveled against UHS is the same that faces high-performing charter schools, like Basis, which are routinely called out for skimming off the best public school students.

Rincon leaders argue that UHS’s inability to grow is actually a good thing, since it ensures that gifted students remain in their home schools, and are spread across the district. They noted that the majority of new enrollment at UHS comes from students who would otherwise be attending other TUSD schools, where they would contribute to the academic culture.

“In a sense, keeping UHS’s enrollment in check positively contributes to greater enrollment of high performing students to their respective home schools,” school leaders wrote.

Federal buy-in needed

And the whole exercise — and the uncertainties and frustrations it has brought to the three schools — may be for naught.

In order to make such a drastic change, TUSD would need buy-in from the federal court because of its longstanding desegregation order.

Campoy, the representative for the Latino plaintiffs, said since they still haven’t received the report from school site councils, her clients will likely not weigh in before the board meeting Tuesday.

But Willis Hawley, the special master overseeing the TUSD’s attempts to bring itself into compliance with the desegregation mandate, wrote the district a list of concerns about the proposal.

Those concerns included that the new cadre of students at the expanded UHS would be “disproportionately white thereby reducing its ethnic diversity.” He noted that a significant number of Rincon students who take advantage of the UHS curriculum will leave the district if UHS moves out, and that the loss of those students will “undermine the overall quality of the education” at Rincon.

He said Catalina’s English-language learners, special-education recipients and refugees could be disadvantaged by the merger if not handled carefully. Overall, he said, Catalina needs interventions to improve its academic quality, which will be difficult if students and the staff have to compete for attention and resources “in a newly merged school that will have its own adjustment problems.”

Contact reporter Hank Stephenson at hstephenson@tucson.com or 573-4279. On Twitter: @hankdeanlight