The Goldwater Institute is proposing a policy that would require school districts to sell their vacant buildings within 18 months and close down and sell failing schools with low enrollments.
The idea would better compensate taxpayers, who would otherwise be stuck paying for the maintenance of the empty buildings. It would also cut down on blight and create an opportunity for charter schools to acquire schools that districts don’t want them to have, said Jonathan Butcher, Goldwater’s director of education and author of the policy report published May 22.
“The taxpayer deserves to have that building used for something well, whether it’s a public use or not,” Butcher said.
The report looked at the enrollment capacity of the state’s 10 largest districts and calculated the equivalent number of empty schools for those districts. The report found 73 percent of Tucson Unified School District schools operate at less than 75 percent capacity, which coupled with the number of vacant schools amounts to the equivalent of 44 empty schools. Mesa Unified School District had the second most equivalent number of empty schools with 22. Scottsdale Unified School District and Paradise Valley Unified School Districts had the equivalent of 12 and 11 empty schools respectively.
The institute’s idea of forcing school districts to sell their empty buildings within a given period was met with claims of hypocrisy from the Arizona School Boards Association and TUSD board member Mark Stegeman, who questioned the institute’s conviction to conservative ideals of limited government.
“It’s interesting how many of the folks who don’t trust government propose a lot of very intrusive, strict statutes that they want the state government to do,” Stegeman said. “I think it is our fiduciary responsibility to do what we can with our empty properties, but I think having a formula like that is too rigid.”
Butcher said the idea is not an abandonment of conservative principles.
“The problem is, if you’re not doing your job and being a good steward of taxpayer funds, someone has got to step in,” Butcher said.
The institute’s report also suggests forcing districts to sell the buildings of failing schools that have had enrollment of 50 percent capacity or less for two years straight.
Even though the report suggests that the forced sale of vacant buildings would benefit charter schools, the Arizona Charter Schools Association was lukewarm to the idea, preferring more flexibility in the laws governing schools.
“We don’t believe it is the buildings that are the issue, we believe it is the people in the buildings that we want to look at,” said Eileen Sigmund, president and CEO of the Arizona Charter Schools Association. “Once you close a facility, you impact the whole neighborhood, so we’d like to see what else could happen.”
Butcher said school districts refuse to sell empty buildings to charter schools because they don’t want the competition.
But, Tracey Benson, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said, “I am certain there is not any kind of policy or concerted statewide effort to withhold district schools from charter schools.”
Stegeman, a Democrat, said he thinks there was an unspoken policy not to sell to charters when the Tucson district shuttered nine schools in 2010, but the current school board is more receptive to the idea now that an additional 10 schools have joined the vacant ranks.
Stegeman said four well-established charter schools made reasonable financial offers that the board didn’t accept when it was trying to dispose of the first group of nine.
“It became obvious to everyone that (the board and staff) weren’t really interested in looking at those offers, which is sort of a shame because a couple of those offers were for the schools that are now vacant with no prospects, so I think we really cost ourselves by not looking at those.”
Stegeman said four of the buildings were leased and one is used by TUSD for storage, but four of the buildings are still vacant and attracting vandals.
Opposed to selling vacant schools
Fellow board member Michael Hicks doesn’t want anything to do with charter schools unless they lease. Hicks, a Republican, said charter schools are TUSD’s competition.
“I do want more students going into public school systems,” Hicks said.
Hicks is also opposed to selling any vacant schools, saying they are an asset that could be put back to use as a school later if demographics shift, or put to use in some other way, including leasing to charter schools.
He said selling an empty building is more costly than maintaining it in the long run because the district would have to buy land and build a new school if there was a need to open it again.
Stegeman doubted the institute’s calculation that the district has the equivalent of 44 empty schools, but he acknowledges the district has a disproportionately high number of school closures.
Shifting demographics and growth are the main drivers of enrollment, but TUSD has an additional factor.
“TUSD does not have a good reputation down here,” he said. “That’s just the reality.”