Thinking ‘outside the box’ on school closures & community education


Creative28-sm72by Pamela Powers Hannley

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.

According to the Arizona Daily Star, the schools will be voted on individually at the meeting to be held at Catalina High School, beginning at 6:30 p.m.  

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. 

Tucson is an economically impoverished city. To raise this city up, we need an educated populace. Cutting educational funding on all levels– particularly K-12, GED education, and community colleges– hurts citizens at the lowest levels of society hardest. Mayor Jonathan Rothschild gets it. Governor Jan Brewer and the Arizona Legislature don't. 

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. 




  1. Thanks to everyone who commented on this story. I sent it to Mary DeCamp, and between the two of us, it was forwarded to Mayor Rothschild, Councilman Kozachik, and Councilwoman Uhlich. Positive vibes all around for this idea. We should keep this alive.

  2. Sounds wonderful. During my time as a TUSD parent (1988-2004), I experienced well-run schools with many programs and others that provided education for the kids and not much else.

    Motivated principals, teachers, and staff are key. Unfortunately, the Arizona government is hostile toward public education, thus suppressing motivation and creativity. 🙁

  3. There is a long saga about how the Muse fell apart, but the main reason was the financial benefactor died before his dream of a world class cultural center was realized. Don’t cry for that building, though. It was no architectural gem. Of course, neither is The District. Art in Reality had separate federal grant funding– through Parks and Rec, I believe.

    When my kids were at Tucson High (1996-2004), the computer lab was open in the evening to parents and students for at least some of those years. There also were public health programs– particularly for teen pregnancy (after they were pregnant, not prevention). Since we didn’t need/use any of those programs, I don’t know many details, but the availability of community programs was spotty. As a few people have alluded here, the principal is key. THS went through several principals when my kids were there, so programs came and went.

    Good question what happens to neighborhoods when schools close. I am sure there are studies from elsewhere. I have not heard of anyone studying it here– great UA epi study.

    I totally agree with you on the budget question. I don’t trust the Pedicone administration at all. There is an ulterior motive(s) for the rapid fire closures by the lame duck board.

  4. Because it was before my time of having kids, and i think much of it happened while I lived in Albuquerque, I didn’t really know the Muse–but what I DID know of it looked really really cool, like a real Tucson treasure. What has happened to that building is a travesty–from a project of great depth to cookie cutter apartments that certainly look to be very shallow and of pretty substantive impact to the neighborhood, which appears to have been somewhat ignored. Another piece that we aren’t looking at yet is what DOES happen to the surrounding neighborhood if one DOESN’T struggle to keep schools open. I guess what I’m saying is that I think there are neighborhood costs that don’t get put into the deficit column because the tabulation is all done from the property edge of the school inward. I can’t help but think that there must be hard and fast figures on what the real costs to the neighborhood are, so that when we say TUSD (and by implication taxpayers) save this much money from school closures its like saying what the water in the plastic bottle ‘costs” without figuring out the environmental “cost” of the bottle. …

  5. For the last several months I was shocked to find out that 1. the $17 million budget deficit came out as a surprise 2. nothing has been done to save the schools, even some of them were on the chopping block last year too and 3. nobody seems to know how the district will make up for the rest of the deficit.
    I think it’s safe to assume that another wave of school closures will hit our community soon. The “outside the box” ideas stated in the article and the comments (I’m sure there are others too) can be implemented only if we -the community- get together and find ways to DO IT.
    It’s my understanding that some of the commentators know each other (I do too) and some don’t. I want to propose a get-together sponsored by Blog for Arizona and Drinking Liberally (which I co-host on a weekly basis along with Mike Bryan, the owner of this blog). The advantage of doing this is our large audience: our weekly email goes to over 300 subscribers and there are over 200 fans of our facebook group. If interested, contact me at

  6. When I was principal at a TUSD elementary school in the last decade we created a community school in many ways. Among the activities: Senior group used the school regularly for meetings, classes, and activities; a Wellness Center which coordinated many neighborhood and community resources; a Salud Para Todos Health Clinic which helped with shots and physicals, etc.; a neighborhood association meeting site; sports fields rented by local teams after hours; an after hours YMCA program which both supported getting homework done and providing before and after school games and activities; a place for adult learning classes; an election voting site; took part in neighborhood festivals; scout troops; Saturday morning homework help for underperforming 5th graders; America Reads extra reading help for 3rd graders; as well as a variety of whole school learning promotions which drew heavily on community volunteers, including creating an outdoor Patio Reading Garden. Our teachers brought in dozens of volunteers to support Young Authors Days for the entire school; Love of Reading readers; and took dozens of field trips using the community as a classroom. Our annual Health and Safety Fairs brought in 100s of people and used our partnership with the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Units to promote personal and community safety and health. 25% of our students came from Open Enrollment brought about by strong relationships with pre-school and day care centers as well as frequent positive news mentions of curriculum-based learning activities. And our test scores were good. We also had KIDCO during the summer in the afternoons following our morning Summer School programs. We also co-sponsored through our PTA and neighborhood association candidate forums for school boards, city council, and other elections in the evenings. Folks, it can be done. Most, if not all of that was discontinued after I retired. Personnel make a difference. School Board, take note.

  7. Reading all these comments, I believe we have good and positive suggestions – OK, how shall we pursue them??? You can count me in!!!!

  8. Excellent and creative post!!! the last sentence is chilling but true! “Over a relatively short period, a shuttered facility can destroy a neighborhood as effectively a a hurricane!” The question is how to gather our resources – human and $$$ to prevent this from happening!

  9. I am heartened by the lively and positive discourse on this post. Betts, I agree that schools don’t have to close to do this; I was assuming some closures were inevitable.

    I think it would be wonderful to hear more about Barbara’s experiences. I had an email exchange with Mary DeCamp after I posted this article. She is still pursuing this community resource center idea. I also know other Greens and people from National Nurses United who are interested in it. Luckily, our mayor and other mayors in the state are interested in promoting education; perhaps they can be persuaded to listen to this idea.

    One precedent for Tucson was the old Muse and Art in Reality (AIR) Program, which were housed in the old YMCA (now the property where The District student housing is.) there were several arts and exercise programs housed in the old Muse. Both of my kids, who attended Tucson High as magnet students, participated in the AIR after school programs for years. It was open to kids 14-23 who lived or attended school in the economically depressed areas around THS and downtown. The other programs — clay, dance, drumming, etc– were open to everyone. I took clay classes there. Muse didn’t have a public health program, but it definitely built community. My kids and I still have contact with the friends we made there– before the Muse was dozed and AIR lost its funding. The former AIR director is still in town.

    By all means, let’s talk.

  10. In New York City at a time when schools were being closed.In many respects the best and the worse city for implementing these kinds of projects. But size didn’t matter. It was all local.

    I initiated the program as Director of Education and Social Welfare planning for the NYC Planning Commission. Then turned it over to the local school districts. Would be more than happy to share my experiences with you. Still relevant today even though all this happened more than a few years ago. I think I have an email address for you at your campaign site. will give it a try.

  11. One place that might provide some useful hints is Japan. There are many empty schools in the used-to-be-new-suburbs where new families can’t afford a house and are moving back into the cities leaving older folk with a lot of empty schools. This isn’t hearsay, I lived in Japan for 18 years, a few years in Kyoto and the rest in Nagaokakyo, a small (~80,000 people) suburb for both Kyoto and Osaka. That said, one difference between Japan and America is that many Japanese already spend time in Life-Long-Learning. Perhaps the biggest organization supporting this is NHK Culture Centers.

    Hard to get information in English but my wife is born-and-bred-in-Japan Japanese and she might be willing to have a look. You can learn the basics by Googling “Nagaokakyo Japan”. Or “NHK Culture Center” where one of the pages gives a good list of the various places that provide courses for adults:

  12. Where did your experience with community schools take place? All of this is JUST what I had in mind when I campaigned. If I do so again, I am sure I will be talking about the same stuff (unless, of course, the District magically transforms itself!) and would love to know more about the nuts and bolts of the process.

  13. Having had some experience with the idea of community schools as community centers as an alternative to closing a school, some comments:

    The largest burden in creating a community center is on the individual who manages all the possible activities within that center. The school can stay open, but in our case, but we had willing principals, committed to the neighboring community. Not only did classes continue, but space was made available for day care, programs for the elderly, health care, free meals, whatever the particular community needed. A plus was the cross-fertilization.

    Consolidate existing programs. The city saved money by avoiding expensive leases, shared overhead, etc.

    Need leadership that is as fervent, if not more fervent, as those who lead economic development programs. Willing to work at the community level, with city agencies, pursue all the possibilities.

    A fact of life: Over a relatively short period, a shuttered facility can destroy a neighborhood as effectively as a hurricane.

  14. I don’t live in or near Tucson but the idea of educating families sounds like a great idea since if you only get their children up to speed for what the current world is like, they can easily get slammed for such ideas at home … like it was in the ’60s.

    The weakest point to me looked like Betts Putnam-Hildalgo’s idea of renting out their bedrooms when their children leave the house. That’s done where I live — Congress, AZ — but it’s against the zoning so it’s one of the things that are legally disallowed but go on as long as nobody brings suit, or there isn’t enough money for the state/town to bring suit. Such is life in Small-Town America.

  15. Why oh why do we need to close the schools to do that though? This is what I said during the campaign and I will continue to say it. There is nothing in the community resource model that is exclusionary of students being taught there at the same time–as another group in the community, thus avoiding the substantial dislocation of thousands of kids. I have been so grateful for these ideas, coming from Mary and from Tres English and others….but why do we need to close the schools to get there? Not all of the activities referred to take place during school hours, not all of them need to take place where the students are. It makes me nuts when Yusef, the financial guy from the district, says “when you can’t afford a large house anymore, you get rid of it”. That is just not necessarily true. When the kids move out, you can rent their bedrooms, you can close off a wing of the house and turn the utilities off to that wing, you can….there are a million other options other than “you get rid of the house”. Geesh, lets talk uncreative thinking! The problem is that we didn’t force the District to either utilize creative ideas or cut into their own “body politic” and significantly downsize 1010 beFORE closing schools. So here we are, left with theorizing what we will do with the mess they have created instead of being allowed to frame the conversation to fit the beneficiaries–the students–instead of the administrators…..

  16. This is creative thinking at its best. We have the facilities and we have the need…and we have the money if we reprioritize ourselves away from the stale Tucson Metro Convention and… what is it?? oh, Visitors Bureau! and the less than effective TREO strategy. This movement makes very strong economic sense. Let’s expand on it…First, we have much lower crime because we are engaging people in productive pursuits, instead of idleness. Think about that. Couldn’t the U of A College of Nursing staff each of these? Would the UMC, El Rio Healthcare, TMC join and create a public health project? These public health professionals could conduct screenings and prove a host of preventive tests and consultations at very low cost. So we can vastly reduce the emergency room visits and the attendant costs of late treatment. Why not move Head Start into these and vastly expand their outreach? With properly staffed day care, we could free many adults for job seeking and adult education. The possibilities are awesome.