Tucson Unified School District is confronting a $17 million budget shortfall caused by declining enrollment, fewer school-age families within district boundaries, school choice, escalating maintenance costs, eliminating the current 1-cent sales tax and continued reductions in state funding. The state of Arizona has cut support to K-12 education by $1 billion in the past five years. As a result of the decline in enrollment and state cutbacks, $100 million has been cut from TUSD.

Substantial shifts are happening. We must act courageously to protect funding for students and the programs that are improving academic achievement. Our recent success in doubling the number of B schools and reducing our D schools by 40 percent is a trajectory on which we must continue.

TUSD's School Master Plan was developed to identify the scope of the crisis and options to confront it. It was created to balance our budget but also to change course as we move our district toward becoming the excellent educational system our community deserves. That effort illuminated a key problem.

We have too many buildings, with 13,000 empty seats draining finances in an already vulnerable environment. Those empty seats are equivalent to 26 empty elementary schools. It is an inefficient use of limited public funds, and restricts putting critical resources in classrooms supporting our nearly 50,000 students.

Increasing enrollment is a key goal of the district, however, it alone will not solve the budget issue.

If every empty seat were filled tomorrow, the district would still have an $11 million deficit, because state funding per student continues to decline while the cost of maintaining buildings continues to rise.

The consideration of closure was inevitable.

The public input process of the School Master Plan began with town halls and has continued for months with open houses, online surveys and other opportunities to gather ideas on how to meet our substantial challenge. The overarching question of this process was:

What kind of district do you want to create?

Participants developed and refined scenarios with varying percentages of cuts from staff, programs and school closures. The community also overwhelmingly expressed the wish to fund such things as increased teacher pay, arts, P.E., reduced class sizes, and more librarians and counselors.

Thousands of responses from community members and employees voiced the desire to make decisions that would result in an enduring transformation.

More than 80 percent of respondents preferred aggressive school closures of 20 or more buildings to allow the district to create high-performing classrooms by redirecting significant dollars toward professional development for teachers, academic programs and instructional technology without drastic cuts to programs and services.

The Governing Board initiated closure of 14 schools. Even if the board chooses to finalize closure for every proposed school, only $5 million will be carved from the deficit after incurring closure costs, and that is not enough. Balancing the budget requires, in addition to any closures, cuts from administration, staff, operations, programs and services.

Contemplating closing schools is difficult. But it is unwise to reduce the very things that we must preserve in order to address the needs of our families and attract others to our district. We must work to strengthen the district even while solving our budget deficit.

We ask the community to join us in developing better classrooms, and building on the academic achievements of the past two years. We value the trust and loyalty of the thousands of families TUSD serves today and all of those we have served for more than 145 years. The welfare of our community tomorrow depends upon the decisions we make today to provide the best opportunities for our children.

public hearings

The TUSD board has scheduled hearings on the possible school closings.

• Saturday at 10 a.m. at the Catalina High School auditorium, 3645 E. Pima St.

• Monday at 6 p.m., also at the Catalina auditorium.

Final decisions could be made at a Dec. 20 board meeting.

John Pedicone is superintendent of the Tucson Unified School District.