In 2012, the Tucson Unified School District closed 11 district schools and reported 13,000 empty seats in the district. This might come as a surprise, except that the district closed nine other school buildings just two years earlier and still has not repurposed all of these buildings. By April 2012 these empty buildings were attracting vandals to the local neighborhoods.
The wave of school building closures comes at a time when charter schools are disproportionally represented in the list of the top performing schools in the state. As TUSD shutters schools, shouldn’t the district find a way for successful charter schools to move in and give families better options?
Apparently not: “My goal is to put charter schools out of business,” TUSD governing board member Michael Hicks said in 2012.
Data from the Arizona School Facilities Board indicate that traditional school buildings have been closed or are operating at less than 75 percent capacity around the state. The recent Goldwater Institute report, “Arizona Charter Schools: A Vision for the Next 20 Years,” explains that TUSD actually has the equivalent of 44 empty school buildings, based on student enrollment numbers and the average size of school facilities in the district.
In the Mesa Unified District, half of the schools are operating at less than 75 percent capacity, while in Paradise Valley Unified, 70 percent of schools are operating below 75 percent capacity.
Meanwhile, observers such as the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools say Arizona could foster a stronger environment of quality charter school options if the state did more to help charter schools find facilities. Even during the recent recession when property values were depressed and a large number of empty buildings were on the market, the Arizona Republic reported, “Many charters…can’t solve the building problem, and thus never open despite having been approved.”
Lawmakers should make sure school districts have a fair bidding process for empty school buildings. Tucson taxpayers were spending $450,000 per year to maintain the nine buildings they closed in 2010. With 11 more closed, plus hundreds operating under 75 percent capacity around the state, Arizona taxpayers and students deserve better.
Goldwater Institute: Arizona Charter Schools: A Vision for the Next 20 Years
Arizona Daily Star: Charter Schools Offer Millions for Closed TUSD Buildings
TUSD: School Master Plan
Arizona Republic: Charter schools find bargains among high vacancy