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TUSD puts budget cut decisions in schools’ hands

Citizen Staff Writer



Schools will get the privilege – or the curse – of helping Tucson Unified School District decide how to make $30 million to $63 million in cuts this coming fiscal year.

It is the first time individual school site councils – made up of principals, teachers, staff and parents – are being asked to make these decisions, something they have pushed for the past several years.

After less than a year on the job, Superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen is reorganizing the district from the top down at a time when it could need to cut 20 percent to 25 percent of its total budget.

Under Fagen’s plan, each school position will have a point value, and each school will be given a specific number of points it can use to determine what positions it will have.

“For example, a teacher may be 1 point; a principal may be 1.6 points,” said spokeswoman Chyrl Hill Lander. “If an elementary school is given 18 points, it will be the responsibility of the school staff, working with its site council, to determine staffing for next year.”

It’s a mixed blessing.

“We’re finally given the chance to make our own decisions, but with nothing to do it with,” said Teri Melendez, principal of both Borton Primary and Holladay Intermediate schools. “I’d almost rather it be done to me than to do it to myself. We’re going to be in survival mode. . . .

“It’s not the district’s fault. It has been fiscally responsible. It’s the state deficit.”

Fagen didn’t expect everyone to be happy with her decision.

“I think most sites and school councils will be really happy to be able to decide on which options are best for them. I have a lot of faith in people. They can get very creative, especially when it directly impacts their work or their students,” she said.

“But if a site doesn’t want to or doesn’t feel equipped to do so, we certainly will do it for them. But then they can’t complain about the decisions.”

Fagen said she favors individual sites making their own choices because “overarching decisions might impact some schools in really positive ways and others really negatively.”

Melendez agreed with that. But she said any decisions will be “fairly drastic.”

“Does our site council go for higher class size so we can keep a librarian or counselor or does it go for lower class size and have no support system for the classrooms?” she asked.

“And if it does go for higher class size, will that conflict with employee agreements that cap the size of a class a teacher is responsible for?”

Steve Courter, president of the teachers union, the Tucson Education Association, acknowledged that site-based decision-making “is something we’ve been pressing for for years.

“Schools always have a better idea of what they need,” he said. “But having that opportunity now means instead of choosing from a wealth of luxuries, sites in many instances are going to have to pare down.”

Such decisions may not be within the realm of some schools to make, Courter said.

“Some schools have highly functioning site councils and others might not be in quite the position to do that,” he said. “We will help schools like that.”

Courter said he has been to site council meetings that are conducted with Roberts Rules of Order that run smoother than TUSD governing board meetings, and he has been to other schools where the councils only meet a couple of times a year.

“Each individual school site has the most information in making budget decisions for their local school communities,” Chief Financial Officer Bonnie Betz said. “Therefore . . .school sites will be able to make budget decisions in the best interest of their students and their local communities.”

A school’s points will be based on projected enrollment figures for next school year and budget formulas for this year.

Spokeswoman Lander said the site-based decision process “represents the values of the superintendent and the school board of TUSD, which is the second-largest district in the state by enrollment and first by area and number of schools. It has 105 schools in its 240 square miles.”

Fagen, saying cuts should begin in administration, recommended Tuesday that the contracts of the curriculum director and all six chief academic officers – some of TUSD’s highest ranking employees – not be renewed. The district’s board approved her proposal.

Lander said the district began fiscal 2009 which ends June 30, with a balanced budget. It had more than $6 million in carry-forward funds but had to give back more than $7 million to the state in January to help cover the deficit for this fiscal year.

The district Budget Advisory Committee is trying to prioritize needs for TUSD, Lander said.

TUSD will have meetings for site councils on what are mandated services and what may be optional for them, Courter said.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, a member of the Sam Hughes Elementary School site council, said the group talked earlier this week about what site-based decisions they might have to make. They worry they might not know what they have to work with until as late as July.

She said there could be concerns about whether some schools might turn the process into a popularity contest. “But overall it’s smart to let schools choose,” Pedersen said.

“Having decisions made by members of the school community really brings it home. You don’t scapegoat the district. You don’t scapegoat the superintendent. And people will get up in arms and start directing their concerns to the right target, the legislators.”

People will have reasons to be up in arms, Pedersen said.

At Sam Hughes, in an upscale University of Arizona neighborhood, “the worst case scenario would mean the school would have a principal, teachers for every grade and an office manager and that’s it,” Pedersen said.

“No attendance clerk, no counselor, no librarian, no monitors. I wonder about the safety issues there. And I don’t know what happens to the nurse. She gives insulin shots. I’m assuming no physical education and no money for supplies. No paper, no toilet paper. That’s where people are starting to make Third World comparisons. What are we coming to?”

Sheri Marlin, systems-thinking resource teacher at Borton, is also its site council facilitator. She said the cuts will be “incredibly unfortunate, but the plan to allow the site councils to make them puts power in an important place.

“I think the site councils will make good decisions that will best meet the needs of the schools, but we are potentially going to lose some incredibly talented, energetic, cutting-edge teachers and that’s going to be a great loss to the district,” she said.

TUSD will have a meeting Thursday for school administrators about how to work with templates that the district has given them. They will be guided on filling them out based on a normal year with no cuts, and then a 10 percent cut and a 22 percent cut.

“I’m not sure I would describe myself as happy at the moment,” Sabino High Principal Valerie Payne, said Tuesday after receiving the templates.

“Most people, when given the opportunity to make the decisions at their schools, that would be exciting. But under these circumstances . . .” Payne said, her voice trailing off.

Concerns are popping up among top school administrators. “The way we understand it, principals are part of this bucket,” Payne said. “The possibility is that at some schools a vote could be taken and a principal could be eliminated. We’re just starting to get the information, so I’m not sure.

“Now, most people don’t want our job. In fact a lot of people say, ‘You’re crazy. Why do you want this job?’ ”

Regardless, “we are looking at drastic cuts and there are going to be a lot of people hurt and I’m not looking forward to that piece,” she said.

In a perfect world, the move to site-based decision making would have local educators jumping for joy, Payne said.

“Absolutely every school is a different, individual learning community. I haven’t found another school in the district like my school,” she said.

“We all have our own in-house concerns. If we were not looking at $30 million to $63 million in cuts, it would be a more exciting proposition,” she said. “But we’re dealing with human beings here, their lives and their careers.”

TUSD to put budget cut decisions into individual schools’ hands

If you go

If you want to weigh in on TUSD budget issues, the district is holding community budget forums.

The next one will be from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at Catalina Magnet High School, 3645 E. Pima St.

The final one is 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 19 at Cholla Magnet High School, 2001 W. Starr Pass Blvd.

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