Updated: Dec 15, 2018
On Wednesday, August 22, Navajo Elementary School in Scottsdale Unified School District’s (“SUSD”) “Saguaro Learning Community” experienced a tragic fire which has, according to SUSD officials, likely closed the site for the remainder of the year. In the meantime, its students and teachers have been relocated to the Oak Street Campus.
The current SUSD administration, led by Superintendent Kriekard, and members of SUSD’s community came together and quickly mounted an incredible effort to make this transition as smooth as is possible for Navajo’s students, teachers, and staff – an effort that was not only student focused, but also demonstrated how much our community loves our public schools. Scottsdale should be proud.
Now, however, the Navajo community must wait with baited breath in order to find out whether its beloved neighborhood campus is to be refurbished, rebuilt, or consolidated.
That latter word – consolidation (i.e., closing certain SUSD schools and moving its students to pre-existing SUSD schools) – has been on the tip of SUSD’s tongue ever since Board Member Kirby (whose term expires in 4 months) announced in August that she would like the Governing Board to discuss further consolidation in our District. This understandably caused alarm for many within the SUSD community who are now wondering whether their children will have a neighborhood school to attend next year or whether their children will have to travel farther to go to school, only to be in classes which might no longer include their friends from the year(s) before.
In a sense, Board Member Kirby’s request was the equivalent of sending out the proverbial “We need to talk” text message to the entire SUSD community, and now with the unexpected fire at Navajo its community is left wondering whether it is the one that will be having that “talk.”
The current Governing Board’s approach to this discussion, however, is premature. Our leadership tends to implement a “fling mud on the wall and see what sticks” strategy – which is not an actual strategy at all, except when your ship is almost certainly going to be sunk and “Hail Mary’s” are all that are left – to making decisions: there is no District-wide vision or master plan, no goals for achieving that vision, and no strategy for achieving those goals.
Under these conditions, where so much information is unknown, discussing consolidation is a waste of time, because consolidation should really come under the “strategy” arm of any meaningful discussion if it is to be discussed at all, and without having a vision or setting goals to achieving that vision, consolidation would really just perpetuate the “fling mud on the wall approach” which has caused our District great harm (see, for example, the “Coronado Success Initiative” where all teachers at Coronado were fired and forced to re-apply for their jobs, the school community was turned upside down, and there has been no improvement in the AZ Merit Scores after the first year of the implementation of this non-sensical plan).
No one should argue that our District’s vision should be “to consolidate.” If so, that would be truly lackluster and have very little (if any) connection to the legal and ethical duties of a public-school district.
The purpose of a public-school district is to provide education to children who live within or, given open enrollment, children who wish to attend our school district.
SUSD’s vision, therefore, ought to be something along the lines of “to create growing, thriving schools which provide high-quality education and learning opportunities for all students.” That vision alone incorporates perhaps the ultimate goal for achieving that vision (i.e., by providing a high-quality education and a diverse range of learning opportunities to all students, chances are parents will want to send their children to SUSD over other educational choices), paving the way for small, more concrete goals to be set. After that point, strategies can be implemented which help achieve these goals and reach our ultimate vision.
Right now, however, consolidation is being discussed in a vacuum: there is no collectively agreed upon vision or goal it is supposed to help accomplish. It is a stand-alone act which is not supported by other considerations: only that funding is tight. It is being discussed solely through a corporate lens: by consolidating, a business is theoretically more economically efficient and, therefore, generates savings (additional profits) which can be passed on to shareholders or used in some other way which promotes the success of the company.
While I am certainly not in favor of doing things that are fiscally irresponsible, and consolidation can be a great strategy for a business, SUSD is not a business (though, its management and internal controls – e.g., procurement and human resources – should be run like one). It has no “shareholders” that excess profits can be passed on to. Its paramount concern is the best interests of the children, and to that end yes, potential savings made through consolidation could be passed on to classrooms or re-invested in some other way.
However, focusing on this factor alone ignores all of the possible problems that come with consolidation, especially when the conversation is seemingly being brought about out of financial desperation (i.e., funding is tight) rather than because there are clear options to consolidate for the purposes of providing better facilities or education to its students (e.g., because a school is “failing” or a newly built campus can service more grade levels and has better facilities in which to educate them).
Implementing a consolidation strategy in SUSD’s case might have some or all of the following problems:
it likely signals financial difficulties, which is hardly appealing to parents and children looking at which schools to attend (just think SEARS);
it is endless, as one could always argue for greater consolidation for even more “savings”;
it will not likely reverse student enrollment decline and may even increase it as disenfranchised students choose to enroll in non-SUSD schools over attending different SUSD schools;
it is disruptive to students and their learning;
it can lead to the separation of friends as students are sent to different schools;
it can lead to increased travel times for students and undermine neighborhood schools and values; and
it can lead to increased class sizes, among other things.
The point of this is to say that consolidation under SUSD’s circumstances will likely not benefit SUSD’s students or the District – it might actually harm them. That is because simply cutting costs will not lead to high-quality education or more learning opportunities for students – SUSD cannot cut its way to growth.
After all, since SUSD’s funding is tied to student enrollment, and SUSD’s student enrollment has continued to decline for the past 10 years, and SUSD has consolidated schools during that period of declining enrollment, then clearly SUSD’s consolidation efforts, implemented in a vacuum, have failed, otherwise student enrollment would have increased.
Consolidation on its own, if at all under any conditions, simply will not entice parents and children to attend SUSD. There must be something more: a vision, goals, and strategy.
At this time, I do not support consolidation of any of our schools. I simply do not have evidence which supports a need to, nor has our District taken them time to set a vision or goals and explain how consolidating our schools fits within our overall strategy for achieving them. For example, are we also going to market our schools to more out-of-district parents who commute through SUSD? Are we also going to provide unique and unbeatable learning opportunities to students which are easily marketable to SUSD and non-SUSD families alike? Are we going to hire a work management team to rebuild our management and internal controls? Are we going to create an internal auditing department which constantly reviews and improves SUSD’s administrative and educational efficiency?
My views regarding consolidation might certainly change when presented with the proper data and coming to agreement with the logic behind a particular consolidation, but the initial concerns everyone should have are, “Why are we consolidating,” “How will consolidation benefit our students and our District,” and “What happens next?”
Consolidation might have a place in a greater overall strategy for our District (the questions above alluding to some of them), but our current Governing Board has simply not told us what that is or worked with us on creating one.
Consolidation for the sake of consolidation, without a well-designed master plan, means that all we are really doing is disrupting students’ lives and delaying the inevitable: more consolidations. If SUSD’s student enrollment decline is a war, then SUSD’s approach so far is to simply lament our losses and allow ourselves to wither away. It is time to be pro-active and work on bringing families to SUSD, not creating empty buildings as memorials for the ones that have left us.