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Steller column: Vail school district covets TUSD property, not its students

The Vail School District wants one of TUSD’s buildings.

The problem is, Vail doesn’t really seem to want TUSD’s kids.

You may have read about the proposal by state Rep. Todd Clodfelter, a Tucson Republican, to force TUSD to hand over Santa Rita High School to the Vail district. As my colleague Hank Stephenson reported Tuesday, it barely cleared a skeptical Education Committee on Monday, but the proposal is still alive.

The problem isn’t so much with the broad idea, which makes some sense. Santa Rita has been underenrolled for years. Can you imagine walking the empty halls of a school built for 2,000 as one of just 450 students? Meanwhile, the neighboring Vail school district is reaching capacity in its high schools and is starting to plan a new one.

Financially and logistically, it makes sense for a district that is poised to grow to take over a large shell of a nearby high school occupied by too-few students. That would likely benefit students and taxpayers.

But dig down into the details, and the idea seems untenable, not least because Vail really just wants the building, not so much the associated people. This is a reflection of how things have changed in the last decade, with Vail becoming a darling district of the powers that be in Phoenix and TUSD viewed as a pariah.

Calvin Baker, who has been superintendent at Vail for 30 years, is a member of the state Board of Education and is often pointed to as a 21st century education leader, one who has adapted to school choice and whose district has flourished as a result. Of course, it has helped that his district’s families are wealthier on average than those in nearby TUSD.

Baker told me that he has never had formal talks with TUSD about Santa Rita, something confirmed by that district’s superintendent, Gabriel Trujillo. This is the first problem with the bill: It pre-empts and poisons the well for any future discussions.

In any case, Baker is not fully supportive of Clodfelter’s bill. Among the main complications, he said, is that the bill would force the school district receiving an underenrolled school to change its boundaries to include the school.

“We have zero interest in changing attendance boundaries,” he said.

“It makes the proposition so much more complicated,” he said. “It brings in tax issues. It brings in the issue of what happens to the elementary and middle school kids in the area.”

“The second reason,” Baker said, “is that I do not perceive parents on either side asking for that change. I don’t think there’s much interest among people who live in Vail to bring that neighborhood into the Vail school district.”

For me, that’s where the debate over this proposal begins and ends. If the district is so worried about its test scores or school grades — or TUSD kids’ cooties for that matter — that it won’t risk taking in, say, 1,000 TUSD students, then it doesn’t deserve the building. It should be all or nothing.

But that’s not the only reason Clodfelter’s proposal should fail. Under his bill, TUSD would be forced to sell Vail the Santa Rita building for 10 percent of the assessed value of the land or the building, whatever is greater. Clodfelter defended this provision by noting that TUSD has sold other underused school properties for much less than the assessed value.

That doesn’t really matter, though. The Legislature can’t force the taxpayers of the Tucson Unified School District who paid for the construction and maintenance of Santa Rita to part with the building for less than market value. If the Legislature tried, the result would be an immediate lawsuit, probably successful.

“I will be the first one to sign up to sue over it, as a TUSD taxpayer and homeowner,” TUSD board member Michael Hicks told me.

Two of Hicks’ children attended Santa Rita, and he’s flat-out angry over the proposal.

“Cal Baker never said anything to me, and neither did Todd Clodfelter,” Hicks said. “I feel betrayed by what’s going on.”

Among his other complaints is one that I share: The voters should have a say. Whether it is through a vote of the two school boards or through a ballot question considered in the two districts, the voters of TUSD and Vail should decide whether any such plan goes through.

The good news is, Clodfelter’s bill does not seem to have much of a future. And, frankly, he doesn’t seem so worried about this particular proposal as much as he does jump-starting discussions.

“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,” he said. “This is where leaders like ourselves step in.”

Of course, other leaders were already stepping in in ways that address Santa Rita’s and Vail’s more fundamental problems.

Tuesday night, Trujillo presented to the board a plan to turn Santa Rita into a center for career and technical education.

“We were working on a CTE expansion at Santa Rita long before this bill was conceived,” Trujillo told me earlier Tuesday. The idea, he said, is that Santa Rita “becomes a premier CTE readiness academy in TUSD and for the east side of Tucson.”

In the first year, 2018-2019, he said, programs in coding, computer science, biotechnology and cybersecurity would be offered.

Perhaps most important, there continues to be a lawsuit against the state for not funding the capital needs of Arizona’s public schools, as required by previous court cases.

If a new school is what Vail really wants — and if Vail’s people prefer to avoid entanglement with TUSD people — then maybe the district should sign up as a plaintiff in that lawsuit and fight for funding.

Four other school districts have signed up as plaintiffs, but you don’t get to be the darling of the powers that be in Phoenix by fighting them.

Contact: or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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