/ Modified may 11, 2010 5:40 p.m.

TUSD Mergers

TUSD budget woes lead to school closures and mergers. TUSD had a building spree to accomodate the baby boomers. And the boom echo kept those schools humming.

(VIDEO: AZPM)

These days a combination of shifting demographics and a dismal economy has led the governing board to take some drastic measures. As the principal of two schools Jon Ben-Asher spent the last two years leading a double life, as he says, always being no place. It's been a tough haul, with both schools forced to cut their budgets by 24 percent in that time and resources stretched thin. That all changes in the coming school year when Wrightstown school closes and the students move into Henry Elementary.

"So the merger means we’re going to restore some of the things that we’ve lost," says Ben-Asher. "And we’ll be able to be that school that people want their kids to go to."

With both schools underenrolled, the two communities took the district up on the offer to consider a merger. The incentives offered by the district sweetened the deal. Henry will get facility improvements, new computers and promethian boards, full day kindergarten and a media center, not to mention a full time principal and many other perks. Henry students express excitement at the many new friends they will make. Third grader Ana Laura Sauceda proudly shows off the friendship bracelet she assembled when students from both schools got together recently.

"You get a bracelet and you come up to a person and say do you want to be my friend? They get a little piece of string, they tie one on and you tie one to their hand," explains Sauceda.

So far three school pairs have decided to merge, with another five looking at the process. We find a far different picture across town at Jefferson Park Elementary, where families and staff found out just recently that their school is one of five that the governing board decided to close. With just over 140 students and a part time principal, the board felt they had no choice but to conserve resources.

"We have to look at what's absolutely necessary," says Judy Burns, President of the TUSD Governing Board. 'It's a horrible position to be in and it's no fault of our own."

Burns says the district cut more than 40 million dollars from its budget last year and faces another 43 million dollars in cuts in the year to come. She understands that communities love their schools, and says while she has never supported school closures before, the situation just didn't pencil out.

"Actually it benefits the schools that are left because the pot doesn’t have to be sliced up so thinly for everybody. And I know it’s a trauma," says Burns.

Jefferson Park principal David Dodge says he understands that the economic crunch has necessitated drastic measures, but the decision to close the school has had a negative impact nevertheless.

"It's very tough and stressful, and there’s a lot of uncertainty," says Dodge. "And there are a lot of hard decisions that have to be made that affect people and their lives, and affect students and their learning. So it’s a tough time."

Meanwhile, the Jefferson Park community has rallied on behalf of its school. Parent and former teacher Alison Frye can't help but think the district has become penny wise and pound foolish.

"I compare this with little small mom and pops and getting rid of those to bring in the Walmarts and Super Targets," Frye says. "All of our small schools where kids are getting lots of one on one attention are becoming these Walmarts."

Neighborhood Association executive director Dyer Lytle believes the school closure would have a devastating effect on a community already stressed, most recently with an explosion of mini-dorms housing University of Arizona students.

"Everybody’s depressed, unhappy about it. One of the things the neighborhood association tries to do is build a sense of community," Lytle says. "I think losing the school is a a real detriment to that sense of community."

Though the Jefferson Park community has yet to figure out a strategy to prevent the school closure, they do worry about what would happen to the structure should the school lose its students. Conversion to residential units seems unpalatable, given the explosion of mini-dorms in the neighborhood. Burns says the board hasn't decided what to do with empty facilities, but that process will begin with community and neighborhood input.

"There are lots of people interested in certain buildings so that will all have to be worked out," Burns says. "But I think with neighborhood and community committees, they are evaluating the offers coming in and what they want to see there."

Jefferson Park and Henry Elementary apparently interpreted district directives differently. While the Jefferson Park community spent the past school year working to develop a first choice initiative to draw students to the school with a focus on science and technology integrated with humanities, the Henry and Wrightstown schools took a different route. Ben-Asher says they concluded that the writing was on the wall.

"And the beauty of this was we could take fate into our own hands and have some site level control with some real incentive over the process, or we could throw the dice and see what would happen," says Ben-Asher.

Of course, proposition 100, to raise the state sales tax to increase school funding looms large on the horizon. The outcome of that vote will determine the future course of TUSD.

Below is a list of public meetings scheduled for discussion of closures and mergers.

May 11, 2010 – Governing Board Meeting Call to the Audience – Meeting begins at 6:30 p.m.
Board Room – Morrow Education Center
1010 E. 10th Street

May 13, 2010 – Governing Board Public Hearing, Roberts/VanHorne/Reynolds Closures - 6:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Palo Verde High School Auditorium
1302 S. Avenida Vega

May 17 & 24, 2010, 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. - Boundary Meeting
Reynolds Elementary School Cafeteria
7450 E. Stella road

May 19, 2010 – 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. – Boundary Meeting
Roberts Elementary School Cafeteria
4355 E. Calle Aurora

May 26, 2010 – 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. – Boundary Meeting
Van Horne Elementary School Cafeteria
7550 E. Pima Street

June 1, 2010 – Governing Board Public Hearing, Duffy/FortLowell/Jefferson Park/Richey/Rogers Closures – 6:00 – 8:30 p.m.
Catalina Magnet High School Auditorium
3645 E. Pima Street

June 7, 2010 – 6:30 – 8:00 p.m. – Boundary Meeting
Rogers Elementary School Cafeteria
6000 E. 14th Street

June 8, 2010 – 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. – Boundary Meeting Richey Elementary School Cafeteria 2209 N. 15th Avenue

June 9, 2010 – 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. – Boundary Meeting
Fort Lowell Elementary School Cafeteria
5151 E. Pima Street

June 10, 2010 – 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. – Boundary Meeting
Jefferson Park Elementary School Cafeteria
1701 E. Seneca Street

June 14, 2010 – 6:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. – Boundary Meeting
Duffy Elementary School Cafeteria
5145 E. 5th Street

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