Former board members decry TUSD ethnic studies controversy

2012-04-10T00:03:00Z 2014-07-02T08:43:06Z Former board members decry TUSD ethnic studies controversyAlexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 10, 2012 12:03 am  • 

A group of former TUSD Governing Board members is calling on the current board to lead by example and conduct itself in a manner that "unifies rather than divides."

The former members, who have individually served over a span of nearly 40 years - dating back to 1975 - will be delivering a letter to the board office today that outlines concerns surrounding the board's actions regarding Mexican American Studies courses.

The courses were found to be in violation of state law and eliminated by the district in January amid a threat of the loss of millions of dollars in state funding. A draft of the letter obtained by the Arizona Daily Star on Monday notes that "trust and credibility have been significantly weakened" in the Tucson community.

The letter said if the board leads by example, perhaps others in position of authority, and the general public, would learn from it and "dial down the caustic rhetoric that now dominates the news about the district."

"As former members of the school board, we understand the difficult nature of this issue you face," the letter states. "While much of the problem leads back to initiatives by the state, it has also been worsened by the district Board's behavior and comments."

For Alex Rodriguez, who served from 2005 to 2008, and Tom Castillo, who served from 1981 to 1988, one particularly disturbing incident was the appearance by board member Michael Hicks on the nationally broadcast "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" on Comedy Central.

Hicks' comments about Mexican American Studies and the explanation that he based his decision to eliminate the classes on "hearsay" ignited a firestorm among supporters of the program.

Hicks has since denied making the statements as presented on television, saying his comments were edited and put together for satirical purposes.

"As parents of a TUSD preschool child, my wife and I want the board to focus on accelerating student achievement in the classroom for all children, not heated rhetoric based on race," Rodriguez said Monday. "This letter calls for the board to lead by example. Actions like 'The Daily Show' really counter leading by example."

Added Castillo: "(Hicks') statements were of great concern to me. He indicated a total lack of understanding or even respect for any issue relating to education or the community. It was just a very negative portrayal and representation of TUSD."

Having served two terms on the board, Castillo is familiar with having to make difficult decisions.

"There is intense pressure, and it comes from many different parts of the community," Castillo said. "I had disagreements with board members, but I always felt their votes were cast with a sense of integrity - that's not what I saw last week on 'The Daily Show.' "

The letter is expected to be signed by about a dozen former board members. It came together "organically," according to U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who served on the TUSD board from 1975-1986. His daughter, Adelita Grijalva, now serves on the board, having been a member since 2003.

"We talk to each other; we've all suffered the trials and tribulations of being a board member," said Grijalva, who has called on top federal education officials urging an investigation of whether the state law that bans a program like TUSD's Mexican American Studies violates federal standards. "This is a diverse group of members who are signing - even when we served together we didn't agree, but we find ourselves at a tipping point where this board needs to do something to hold the community together."

Several of the ex-board members expected to sign the letter declined comment or could not be reached Monday. At least a dozen are expected to sign. The draft copy of the letter the Star obtained had no signatures.

Governing Board President Mark Stegeman declined to comment on the letter until he had an opportunity to view it, but he did say that he acknowledges that "the current board is changing the district's direction. I respect the work of the previous boards, but change must come to TUSD."

The letter went on to advise the board against conducting individual media interviews and taking personnel action pertaining to Mexican American Studies.

One such personnel action is the consideration of whether to renew the contracts of numerous employees for the upcoming school year, to include that of Mexican American Studies Director Sean Arce.

The board is expected to vote on the issue tonight, although it was not clear Monday how many contracts would be up for consideration.

That vote, paired with Hicks' appearance on the "Daily Show," is expected to bring out numerous supporters of Mexican American Studies before the meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m.

As part of the protests, burritos will be handed out to Mexican American Studies supporters as inspired by Hicks, who noted while on "The Daily Show" that every week the teachers would "go out and buy burritos and feed these kids."

On StarNet: Read more on the ethnic studies controversy at azstarnet.com/education

If you go

The TUSD board meeting begins at 8 tonight at 1010 E. 10th St.

Mexican American Studies supporters are expected to gather at 6 p.m. outside the district headquarters.

A draft of the letter

Here is a draft of the letter being sent by former TUSD Governing Board members to the current members:

Dear Governing Board Members:

We are speaking out as former Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) Governing Board Members who have individually served over a span of 30 years. Concerns surrounding the Mexican American Studies (MAS) Department have been addressed by the Board in ways that have divided the greater Tucson community. Trust and credibility have been significantly weakened. In order to prevent further division, we urge that adverse actions, including individual board member media interviews and personnel action, pertaining to MAS, be halted.

As former members of the school board, we understand the difficult nature of this issue you face. Yet, the manner in which MAS has been treated is not respectful or reflective of professional practice. While much of the problem leads back to initiatives by the State, it has also been worsened by the District Board's behavior and comments.

After the Governing Board took action January 10th of this year to "suspend" MAS courses, the community was told it was time to "move on." Yet, there continue to be negative news stories coming from District officials and Board members about MAS which has caused numerous aftershocks, some nationally.

We implore you to shift from the negative attention that is now focused on MAS to positive attention on countless matters critical to the education of students in TUSD. We encourage you to conduct yourselves in a manner that unifies rather than divides, and that you work together as a group to build community, rather than to erode it. Tucson has a long tradition of celebrating our community's diverse cultural heritage, and in seeking solutions to our problems through respectful dialogue. For the sake of our community's children, please lead by example. Hopefully, others in positions of authority, and the general public, will learn from your example and dial down the caustic rhetoric that now dominates the news about the District.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at ahuicochea@azstarnet.com or 573-4175.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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