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Tucson-area student test scores recovering post-COVID; Sahuarita revamps zoning

The Tucson agenda

Tucson-area student test scores recovering post-COVID; Sahuarita revamps zoning

Water rates may be increasing in Oro Valley, plus more in local gov't meetings this week

  • Test scores across the region show post-COVID improvement in English Language Arts.
    TUSDTest scores across the region show post-COVID improvement in English Language Arts.

This week's rundown of local government meetings is like a fun night at the bar.

Everywhere we look something interesting is brewing, and sometimes perusing the agendas is really fascinating for local news geeks like me or anyone who reads me.

For instance: Tucson is getting some good news on the student-testing front.

Remember that achievement drop during the pandemic that would no doubt take us eons to recover from, leaving an entire generation academically wrecked?

Well, apparently, it's just taken a year to start getting back on track, though the results are stronger in English than math.

The results are part of a staff report about a master plan update to the Tucson Unified School District's Governing Board will get a glimpse of a master plan update.

TUSD was nice enough to include all results for most area school districts (Sahuarita didn't make the cut). 

The "English Language Arts" test scores are bouncing back pretty quickly and across all school districts. In math, students are improving but can't claim full recovery yet.

Arizona's battery of exams remains incomplete because the AzMerit test had been suspended. They include just the Arizona Academic Standards Assessment and the ACT test for certain grades since 2018.

Here's what you gotta know: The results show near identically shaped trend lines even if the scores differ from district. No, the scores have not completely recovered but they are on their way.

Differences among districts are predicable. In low-poverty areas, results showed 70 percent proficiency before the pandemic, a decent dip during and a return toward mean.

High-poverty districts showed similar recoveries. For example, in TUSD, just 30 percent of students passed the test before COVID. And while the scores are returning to normal, normal was hardly something to brag about.

Poverty, poverty, poverty is the top predictor of student achievement. Fix poverty and you fix the schools.

Deseg debrief

TUSD is about to release its first progress report since escaping generations of court supervision of its desegregation efforts.

A U.S. District Court judge put TUSD under a desegregation order in 1974 and the district was under court order for nearly 50 years. Last summer, the court order was lifted when a judge ruled the district was square with the law.

The 2023 report doesn't discuss much new. The operative verb in the report is "continued," as in "the district continues" to keep doing what it was doing to win the court's favor.

Frankly, it would seem hard for TUSD not to be integrated given sheer demographic reality.

According to the report, set to be shown to the Governing Board during Tuesday's meeting, the district's enrollment is 62 percent Latino, 19 percent white and 10 percent African-American. Compare that to 1974, when the district was placed under the desegregation order and 67 percent of the students were white.

These trends may have as much to do with the challenges to integration as they tell a TUSD success story.

State law requires an open enrollment system, so it's hard for administrators to tell students "you go here and you go there." Also, neighboring school districts like Vail and Marana compete for students along with charter schools.

Finally, there's good old-fashioned socio-economic segregation, with different races and ethnic groups living in different parts of town.

Hell, the district even has a bus driver shortage, hampering its ability to move students around.

TUSD staff seemed too polite to mention another challenge that affects all public school district.  So long as state funding is kept so low, districts wither on the vine. Parents will scramble to send their kids any which way for better results, even if they are hard to find.

Charter schools have cut into the district's enrollment, to the point that TUSD teaches fewer kids than it did 48 years ago. Tucson's overall population has grown markedly.

Marketing isn't going to fix Arizona's funding problem, though the report goes into some depth discussing marketing strategies in broad terms to attract more students.

TUSD issues these reports annually but this is the first since getting the "all clear" from the feds.

TUSD will also get an update on its fiscal year 2022-23 budget. So far, so good. The district looks to be $100 million in the black at the end of the year. 

So far the American Rescue Plan passed by Congress in 2021 will total by year's end $54 million in spending local taxpayers didn't have to fork over. There's another $27 million to be spent.

Is that Sahuarita or Austin?

I think that it's safe to say that Sahuarita and I are probably not on the same political page. It's a pretty right-wing town. 

So why is it that the Town Council keeps surprising me by doing things that just make sense.

For instance, the town wants to revamp its zoning laws, and I have a real thing for revamping zoning laws.

Sahuarita's zoning is now based on old county designations dating to when the town incorporated. 

The town limits are removed from Tucson's urban core. So it made sense to map out the region as a rural designation before a suburban town grew up. So the land use laws cater to feedlots and hog farming. 

The idea is also to change the zoning code to allow more dense residential construction, making it so developers can build apartment complexes and small-unit subdivisions. 

Simply put, the town is trying to make way for more affordable housing.

The revamp would also allow for "tiny houses," which have become a low-impact rage for certain people across the country. By tiny, I mean tiny. These are homes that are often the size of a bedroom but are designed well enough to maximize space like a boat or a fifth-wheel.

I'd be fascinated to know how this goes. The council is being asked to put the changes out for public comment. Will the citizens turn into a bunch of lefty Angeleno NIMBYs?  Or will they say "yeah, OK?"

I say it's 50-50 that the knuckle-dragging cops and Border Patrol agents living in Sahuarita show more forbearance of the working class than the so-called progressives in California.

We'll see.

The council will also vote on giving TIP Strategies a contract to work with the town to develop an economic development plan. 

TIP strategies is based out of Austin, Texas. That's a place that didn't say "we have sun and a university so life is nice. Alas, we'll never make money here or land any high-paying businesses."

Zoning fight in Nogales

The city of Nogales has its own full-on zoning battle on its hands. Residents have clearly stated their opposition to a project being developed by a city department head.

The rezoning is slated for 4 acres on Frank Reed Road near Interstate 19 and the applicant is Nogales Public Works Director Alejandro Barcenas. The project would turn land slated for single-family homes into multi-family housing.

Aha, the fix is in, right?

According to the Nogales International, the locals got ticked off and accused the Town Council of secretiveness. The plan was rejected in January and then brought back for reconsideration but tabled.

Well, a city department head can own land and ask for a rezoning just like if they wanted to call the cops or take their kids to a park. 

The city attorney and Santa Cruz County Attorney's Office found no conflict of interest in the council approving this deal.

The city council will take another whack at it on Wednesday.

I'm not saying the fix isn't in, I'm just don't assume it is because it appears to be an inside job. According to the city, all applicable public notices were sent out all during the rezoning process.

Water rates in OV

In Oro Valley, the Town Council will vote on Wednesday about whether to issue a warning shot that it may increase water rates.

Before a city or town increases water rates, it must give a 60 day notice that it intends to do so.

What's clear is that the water department wants to increase the rates.

The town conducted a study for its water system that found without the rate increase, the water reserve fund will fall below 20 percent of operating revenues as required by town policy. The rate hike is also preferred as a way to handle increased demand on the water system caused by expected growth.

With the proposed rate increase, the town will have about $6 million and more flexibility to handle the cost of operating the system.

What I'm not seeing is the town pointing to a massive "holy crap" imperative for this increase. It may just be trying to act prudently to avoid such a future water issue.

I'm not sure these folks know how government is supposed to work. I'll send them the memo.

Tech and sex in the classroom

Kids in the Catalina Foothills Unified School District will have to get special parental permission for each and every piece of learning material that may contain material some parents find sexually offensive.

Yep. They're dealing with S - -  education. Sssshh. Florida will hear you.

The new policy is just being done to conform to a state law meant to protect parents from knowing their kids know about sex. I mean can't they just send junior to a charter school that teaching babies are delivered by storks and leave the rest of the kids alone?

The CFUSD Governing Board just underwent elections and a slate of culture warriors got pretty much humiliated at the polls. God bless them for running but they got crunched, worked, hammered and smoked.

The voters have spoken. But in Arizona, "local control" apparently means voters in Cochise, Yavapai and Mohave counties elect legislators to micromanage "morality" all across the state.

The Flowing Wells Unified School District Governing Board will begin a 60-day public review process of proposed curriculum for American government, biology and world history.

Good, because none of those subjects ever create any ignorant kerfuffle.

The board will also vote on a new marketing strategy. Selling the district to families is increasingly important in Arizona, because charter schools can draw away students and the money that comes with them. 

By the way, remember that school districts have to have an ad budget the next time  someone complains about too small a chunk of school funding makes it into classrooms.

The Sunnyside Unified School District's board will vote on a grant to get federal help in buying an online upgrade.

The district is working with the "E-Rate" program, run by the Federal Communication Commission to give school districts a discount.

The district wants to do a $2.9 million technology upgrade. The bulk of the money is going to  Phoenix-area firm Hye Tech. Cox Communications and Sun Corridor will get small monthly payments for services. That's right. The local economic development company is acting as something of an Internet provider. 

With federal help, Sunnyside is eligible for a discount that would leave its cost at $571,000.

The district will also get updates on a vaping product class-action suit and employee benefit costs. Health benefit prices have been stable for the last few years. I guess no eggs are involved.

Third party 'double dip'

The Amphitheater Unified School District is facing the same teacher shortage as all other area districts but is ready to take an interesting approach.

Amphi staff are asking the Governing Board to approve hiring retired teachers.

Arizona state law restricts "double-dipping" (collecting state retirement and returning to a state job to collect a government salary). They have to wait a year before being rehired. 

This is sort of like when former honcho Pima County Chuck Huckelberry secretly retired but kept working as a contractor while received his pension. That's something you can only do for a short period, before the mandatory break. Whether you should do it purposefully on the DL is another thing.

The state doesn't want workers to  retire, go back to work and collect a pension after a retirement even though they clearly are not retired.

Apparently, there's a loophole. First-year retirees can be "leased" through a third party vendor, who will get a cut. That makes sense. The Arizona Legislature likes to help businesses make some fast bucks.

The district wants to do just that to bring back recently retired teachers by entering an an arrangement with Educational Services, Inc., a Scottsdale-based  (of course) company. After a year's separation, the district's plan would be just to hire directly hire them and not pay the third-party vendor's fee.

The board will vote on the plan during its meeting Tuesday.

It will also vote on whether to study a leave buy-back plan that was briefly put into effect last year. 

That plan might come back as a permanent feature in the benefits package.

Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.

The Tucson agenda

Public meetings around Tucson this week:

Sahuarita Town Council

Tucson Unified School District Governing Board

Amphitheater Unified School District Governing Board

Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board

Flowing Wells Unified School District Governing Board

Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board

Oro Valley Town Council

Nogales Town Council Regular Meeting

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