Eight months after a previous attempt, the Marana Unified School District Governing Board decided to permanently close Thornydale Elementary School, located at 7651 N. Oldfather Road, in a 4-1 decision last Thursday evening.
Enrollment at the K-6 school has been declining for over two decades, according to the district. In 1994 there were 733 students enrolled, compared to just 306 this year.
Officials said the decline was caused by a demographic change in the neighborhood, with fewer elementary school-aged children living there. There are no new home developments planned either. Only 192 students at the school live within the Thornydale attendance boundaries.
“In keeping with good fiscal responsibility, the district acknowledges that school district budget revenues are solely generated on a per pupil basis; therefore school enrollment is vitally important to the sustainability of a school,” Superintendent Doug Wilson wrote in an open letter to families of Thornydale Elementary before the meeting.
The district spends about $2 million annually to keep the school running. Wilson said they spend about $6,468 per pupil at Thornydale, compared to $4,662 at the other elementary schools. This makes a $550,000 difference annually.
Thornydale’s students are expected to relocate to the neighboring Quail Run and Butterfield elementary schools, but parents also have the option to use open enrollment at another school.
MUSD Chief Financial Officer Dan Contorno said that the district’s existing bus routes could be rearranged to accommodate the change without adding additional routes.
At the meeting, parents expressed concerns over the hardships of transitioning their children, many of whom have special needs.
Shauna Quintero’s son has attended the special needs program at Thornydale for his entire time in elementary school. She took the stand during the meeting to ask the board to not close down the school.
“[The students] are used to having a culture of acceptance and inclusion where seeing wheelchairs and seeing braces and seeing kids who look different is not strange, it’s not hidden in the back, it’s very much a part of the student body,” she said. “Christian’s friends have known him since kindergarten, they’ve gone through every grade with him … That’s the kind of culture that Thornydale has and you can’t just recreate that by redistributing these students. Sure you can shuffle these kids off to another school and honor your IEPs, I mean they won’t tell you that it’s scary to change their schedule and the people that surround them because some of them don’t even have a voice.”
Nicole Pogue, who has three children attending Thornydale, said that if enrollment was dropping over decades it should have been addressed long ago, and it’s now the board’s responsibility to find alternative solutions.
She talked about her daughter, Ryan, a second-grader who is asking Santa to save her school instead of bringing presents this year.
“There are so many other options than doing this,” Pogue said. “I know it’s the easy solution, I know it solves problems, I saw the numbers, but there are other options that have not even been explored and I’m begging you to do that option instead of closing it because it will pay off in the long run for Marana.”
Board member Dan Post gave the sole “no” vote, stating that closing the school was the practical thing to do, but not the right thing to do.
Board president Tom Carlson said the decision was an extremely difficult one to make, and that he understood the parents’ frustration. However, he said the closure of Thornydale would be for the greater good of the district as a whole.
“The decision we have to make to close the school or not, voting in favor of it is not the easy choice, the easy choice would be to keep on keeping on,” he said. “In order to sustain Thornydale, we would need a couple hundred more students ongoing. Based on planning factors that the district uses, that’s a minimum of 1,300 homes that would have to either be built or sold or bought by people who have kids in that age bracket … So the numbers simply aren’t there.”
Assistant superintendent Carolyn Dumler said all of Thornydale’s teachers, administration and support staff will be relocated to different schools in comparable positions, per district policy.
Following the decision to close the school, the board members unanimously voted to convert the Thornydale campus into a multi-use facility for the district’s Dr. Marianne Valdez Play and Learn (PAL) preschool program, the Extended Learning Opportunities Department, the Health Services Department and the Student Services Department. Dumler reported that converting the facilities will require minimal costs.
The closure of Thornydale will also free up space at the district office to expand the MCAT program. Representatives from the non-traditional high school said this move could allow them to “double in size” and meet the needs of almost 80 potential students on their waitlist.
Thornydale is expected to close at the end of this school year.