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It's time for TUSD to accept the inevitable

It's time for TUSD to accept the inevitable

No question: Even the whiff of a hint that a public school might be closed provokes strong emotions.

Yeah, yeah, we say, maybe enrollment is down, and maybe state funding has been cut dramatically and maybe the school district is struggling to make ends meet, but there has to be another way than closing our own, beloved neighborhood school. Or the school we attended. Or our children’s school.

As a new efficiency audit shows, still more consolidation of schools by Tucson Unified School District is not just rational, it’s responsible. Eventually, it’s going to be inevitable.

The new $300,000 audit report by Gibson Consulting Group of Austin, Texas, makes 62 recommendations to improve efficiency at TUSD and to save more than $37 million over a five-year period between 2014 and 2019.

The big-ticket item at about $30 million is closing still more schools: nine elementary schools and two high schools.

Although TUSD closed nine schools in 2010 and another 11 schools at the end of the 2012-2013 school year, the auditors noted there are between 13,000 and 14,000 empty student seats across all of TUSD’s schools. That number is projected to grow as the district’s enrollment continues to decline.

The auditors didn’t specify which schools they would suggest be closed, but they did report that there are 11 elementary and middle schools in TUSD with student-to-operating-capacity ratios of less than 70 percent.

They singled out four high schools as notably underused: Sabino High School is operating at 54 percent of capacity, Catalina at 68 percent, Palo Verde at 46 percent and Santa Rita at 45 percent.

Further, the auditors noted that among TUSD’s 300 portable classrooms, 131 are located at schools that already are “well under capacity. These portables are being cleaned, maintained, and using energy at a very high cost to the district.” Closing some of them could save another $500,000 a year, the auditors said.

Gibson dubbed TUSD a “higher cost, lower performing district.”

Although the district is “close to peer districts and the state average on classroom spending,” it said, TUSD is “substantially above average” on its non-classroom spending.

Gibson highlighted the Mesa Public Schools, the largest district in the state, as comparable. The auditors said TUSD spends $8,421 per student compared to Mesa’s $7,706. But Mesa spends more of its per-student allocation in the classroom — $4,336 compared to $4,139.

The auditors said a key reason for TUSD’s “higher cost structure” is “the larger number of schools at TUSD relative to its student population.” In 2011-12, TUSD’s average school size was 490 students. The Mesa district’s average was 742 students, the auditors reported. Other reasons include TUSD’s mandated desegregation spending and higher administrative costs, Gibson said.

TUSD is using the Gibson audit and a new curriculum audit to work with the members of its community on a five-year “strategic plan” that should be ready for the Governing Board by the end of June, says Yousef Awwad, deputy superintendent of operations. He told us the district is “not considering closures at this point although at some point in the future we could be.”

Awwad cited a number of efficiencies the district has implemented recently, including last year’s school closures, cuts of “11 percent of departmental budgets in the district office,” a new solar initiative, rebates and savings realized by using purchasing cards to pay bills, efficiencies in the payroll department and more.

Furthermore, he said, TUSD is on top of its budget: “We are not going to be in an emergency situation.”

That’s good, and so is the district’s involvement of its constituents in its strategic planning. But Gibson’s numbers are persuasive and the enrollment trends are undeniable: Everyone should be prepared for more consolidations down the line.

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