Tonight Tucson Unified School District's lame duck governing board will vote on closing up to 14 schools around the district: Brichta, Corbett, Cragin, Lyons, Manzo, Menlo Park, Schumaker and Sewell elementary schools; Carson, Hohokam, Maxwell and Wakefield middle schools; Fort Lowell/Townsend K-8; and Howenstine High School.
Public schools are the backbone of our community. This is a sad day for Tucson. In multiple stories about the public forums on school closures, dozens of parents and activitists have spoken out in favor of saving particular schools. "This side of town needs those schools. You can close all of them." "This school has wonderfully creative programs. You can't close it." "This is a top-rated school with full enrollment. You can't close it." And on...
Unfortunately, these reasons won't be enough to save most of the schools. With a $17 million budget deficit and 13,000 empty seats (the equivalent of 26 schools) TUSD is looking at data, expenditures, and enrollment-- how can taxpayers get the most bang for their buck-- not emotion, not program specifics, and not community cohesion.
In a recent Star article, TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone admitted that the district won't realize the projected full $5 million from the school closures because the district has to maintain the closed schools until they are closed or leased. Of the nine schools closed in 2010, three remain vacant and a deal to level a fourth recently fell through.
Allowing as many as 18 public schools to sit empty is a dramatic waste of resources. Tucson needs out-of-the-box thinking on this issue. For some ideas, read on.
We have the physical resources (the empty schools). We have the need. We have the leadership (at least locally). Now what we need is creative thinking. I propose that we revive a Green Party idea that arose in the last mayoral election and turn some of the empty schools into community resource centers. Here's an excerpt from a story I wrote about the 2011 mayoral race...
On other issues– like economic and social justice– they [mayoral candidates Jonathan Rothschild and Mary DeCamp] were worlds apart. On job creation, Rothschild’s answers were very mainstream and not detailed: strengthen the educational system; work with the University of Arizona tech transfer department and related businesses to create a technology and research hub; and see his 180 Day Plan (which is very pro-business).
DeCamp’s answers were anything but mainstream. She focused on building local businesses–rather than on attracting new businesses with economic incentives (ie, tax breaks, free land, reduced or no fees, whatever) and building a micro-financing system to help new start-up companies. She also envisions expanding Tucson’s neighborhood centers and broadening their scope by adding tutoring, basic healthcare, free advice from SCORE for new start-up businesses, community-based police stations, space for non-profits (eg, Literacy Volunteers, the Community Food Bank, etc.), and more. When asked how she would pay for expansion of the neighborhood centers (which have suffered budget cuts, staff lay-offs, and reductions in services and hours), she pointed to the millions that Tucson is investing with TREO (the folks who offer those incentives to out-of-state businesses and bring new call center jobs to Tucson) and the Metropolitan Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (the folks who sell cowboys and cactus to get people to vacation in the resorts that ring the city).
At first blush, DeCamp’s Community Conservation Centers seem like pie-in-the-sky for a cash-strapped city but think of the possibilities in business development, educational attainment, healthcare savings, and community-building that this local investment could bring — not to mention directly creating jobs in the centers themselves. I am not dissing Rothschild’s technology hub idea; that’s good, but I’ve heard it before. I think DeCamp’s community center idea is a fresh complement to his. I also like her emphasis on promoting Tucson’s strengths and growing local business– instead of trying to lure businesses or sports teams away from other cities.
Tucson could use some of those empty schools to create community resource centers with extended hours-- places for families to learn. Take, for example, the proposed closure of the three west side schools. Activists and neighborhood residents have lobbied to keep these schools open because the minority populations on the west side need them. I argue that residents in Tucson's poorest neighborhoods need more than those elementary schools. As community resource centers, closed schools could have computer labs where students and families could access the Internet for free-- plus mini-libraries, English language classes, GED classes, citizenship counseling, nutritional counseling and health screening, job placement, recreational activities, urban farming, solar and rainwater harvesting, and the other resources listed in the paragraphs above.
Instead of educating only children in these public school buildings, community resource centers would be educating families. Raising up all of our citizens will raise up our city. I agree with the suggestion that we could reallocate some of the money now allotted to TREO and the Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau to fund community resource centers-- because having a better educated populace will help these groups sell our city to employers and help our city spark entrepreneurship. I also believe that there are opportunities for the University of Arizona to partner with the city to obtain grant funds for community resource centers, as models for urban growth and human development.
So, don't cry about our schools after tonight's TUSD vote. Let's push the city into using these physical resources to educate a broader swath of our citizens.