After months of deliberations, the Flagstaff Unified School District governing board has settled on four schools for closure: Sinagua High, Flagstaff Middle, and South Beaver and Christensen elementaries.

The board voted 4-1 Tuesday, with Beth Heerding dissenting, to shutter the four schools and adopt a K-5/6-8/9-12 grade configuration across the district. The closures and configurations go into effect this fall.

Board member Chris Bavasi said there's no dispute that schools should be closed, and he poured himself into research before coming to what he said was a commonsense conclusion.

"It's unfortunate. It's sad. But it's necessary," Bavasi said before about 250 people gathered in the Coconino High School auditorium.

The board essentially had two closure plans to consider.

District administrators proposed closing two elementary schools, one middle school and Sinagua High School and rearranging grade distributions.

A group of families largely representing Sinagua wanted the board to go with a plan that would have maintained all the middle and high schools with the shared-campus 7-12 structure that was put into place a year ago at Sinagua. They contended that it was more cost-effective, would have stemmed further enrollment loss, and was better educationally and socially for families.

Superintendent Barbara Hickman's formal proposal to close South Beaver, Christensen, Flagstaff Middle and Sinagua High came after months of intensive study and feedback, sparked by dropping enrollment, a study by the state Auditor General's office on FUSD's administrative overhead and building inefficiencies, and state budgetary constraints.

When the board began talks in November, officials were uncertain about the budget and in fear of budget cuts of up to 15 percent, fueled by slashing at the state level. Even after the local approval this spring of an FUSD budget override and the statewide acceptance of a temporary 1-cent sales tax, Hickman said she still anticipates the state cutting about $4 million next year.

NO SECOND FOR 7-12

Heerding has urged her board colleagues in the past to consider the 7-12 plan. She was the strongest advocate on the board for the configuration, and offered a detailed motion that laid out benefits of the all-in-one secondary model.

Board president Deborah Harris asked for a second to Heerding's motion, but found them only in the audience - "I second! We second!" - and not on the board.

It was Paul Kulpinski who formally moved to accept the administration's plan, citing the need to stay within a balanced budget, satisfy the suggestions of the Auditor General's office and offer children a "21st century" school system.

He said closing South Beaver and moving the magnet program to Kinsey Elementary would displace the fewest students - South Beaver had only about 350 students last year - and allow the character and technology magnet focus to grow in a new building. Christensen, he said, had inadequate facilities. And Flagstaff Middle and Sinagua are not big enough to handle the influx created by consolidation. Board member Sara Aleman seconded.

APPEALS FOR CHRISTENSEN, BEAVER

John Viktora, a member of the district's citizen budget committee, thanked Heerding for "swimming upstream," and fighting a good fight even if her efforts were "Quixotic." He had sharp criticism for the decision-making process by other board members.

"My sense is that the goals are decided, then you gather information to substantiate those goals," he said. "That's wrong."

Some of the other 20 people who spoke before the board felt the same way. Others championed their school even though the decision to close them was imminent. Others called for unity. Many thanked the board for their service.

Christensen father Mike Atencio said his daughter doesn't want to attend Thomas Elementary, where she will likely go after her school's closure. He pointed out that Christensen, which is set back in a cul-de-sac adjacent to a neighborhood, doesn't generate the kind of thick traffic that Thomas does on Lockett Road, an eastside arterial.

"I don't think you really are listening to the community," he told officials. "You're not listening to the teachers and you're definitely not listening to parents."

Mike Hernandez's niece attended South Beaver. At second grade, she reads and writes at a sixth-grade level, and knows her multiplication tables through 9.

"You're going to close the door on a quality of education that our children deserve and that we expect from our school district," he said, rapping his finger against the podium and sending the echoes through the room.

Connie Gamboa sent her children to South Beaver, where she and her seven siblings went to school and where her parents and grandparents went before them.

She enrolled her children in South Beaver even though she lives in Doney Park, miles east of the Southside/school.

"I said, there's no way my kids are gonna get an education at another elementary school other than South Beaver," she said.

SUPPORT EACH OTHER

Mother Jen Whetten said that displacing families is unfortunate, but it's a reality.

"We have to just take that vat of lemons and make some lemonade with it," she said. "I hope that we'll all be there at the lemonade stand supporting each other."

Sheila Rader said she didn't want to offend, but she had an observation that was well-received by the audience.

"There's a lot of passion in the audience tonight. We're not here for that. That time has passed. We're here to come up with the conclusion of what's going to happen," she said. "Whether it's my school that closes or your school, wherever my child goes I know they'll succeed because I'm there to help them succeed."

The board was initially set to vote on the closure matter in mid-March, right before spring break. But lawyer-parent Pernell McGuire, who was also active in the 7-12 group and whose children attended Sinagua, convinced the district to reset its closure timeline after noticing a legal flaw in the notifications of possible closure sent out in January.

The timeline was reset to comply with state laws on the school closure process but pushed the vote past the last day of school, which was last week. District officials will reconvene today to begin discussing new boundaries for the remaining schools. The board will vote on the boundaries on June 16.

Attorney Tony Gonzales has been retained by the families of 33 South Beaver students. He has raised concerns about potential discrimination affecting displaced students from the predominantly Hispanic, low-income school. (The district's lawyers have argued against his claims.) He said his office is still set to file suit, and he'll know more within a few days after again meeting with his clients.

TEACHERS UNCERTAIN

Longtime physical education teacher Jana Fix has taught in FUSD for 22 years. All but one of them have been at Christensen, and the last five she has split between Christensen and South Beaver.

Her seniority will assure her a job teaching P.E. somewhere in the district. But for now, in a way, she's a coach without a team.

"I'm in limbo," said Fix, her eyes wet with tears. "Both of my schools went down."

John Schreur, Sinagua principal, wasn't sure what his next job assignment would be. But, he said he's talked with lots of students who said they just want what's best for them, and they can adjust.

"We've got good kids at all three sites. We've got great teachers," he said. "The challenge now is to build."

Before the vote, Heerding said that people should back students and teachers regardless, and stay involved as they have been over the past several months.

"I don't support the motion," she said. "However, I do support our schools."

Hillary Davis can be reached at hdavis@azdailysun.com or 556-2261.

 

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