Here are two more questions and answers from the TUSD Governing Board candidates. Candidate Menelik Bakari did not respond to the emailed questions.
The election is Nov. 6. The top three vote-getters will win the board seats.
What is the biggest problem in TUSD right now?
• Debe Campos-Fleenor: Bloated administrative costs. TUSD needs to apply laser focus on educational quality. TUSD should be run more like a business that serves the needs of the student community and less like the MVD.
• Don Cotton: The $17 million deficit is the most dangerous problem that TUSD is looking at. Maintaining educational integrity in an environment of such large amount of debt is very difficult. This is really a crisis for TUSD. Some of our problems with the budget are not TUSD's fault entirely. We have a Legislature that consistently puts education last. But only some of the blame is with the Legislature. TUSD has consistently been irresponsible with its finances. TUSD is going to have to eliminate practices that lead to debt in order to remain viable, let alone competitive.
• Miguel Cuevas: As the president of the TUSD board, I believe that increasing student achievement while drastically reducing the budget is a tough task. Yet I believe through a strong curriculum, effective professional development and effective academic evaluations, TUSD will continue to improve in student achievement for every kid, in every school.
• Ralph Ellinwood: The biggest problem facing TUSD is the lack of leadership by the Governing Board. Some of its members seem to think they cannot be involved in ensuring that policy is properly implemented or that the administration is responding to the many problems. Board members need to be advocates for students and the public in general, approaching their job accordingly, demanding explanation, accountability and results.
• Kristel Ann Foster: TUSD's negative public image is the biggest problem we are facing. Our district loses more than 1,000 students a year, another reason why we are facing the financial situation we are right now. We must change our community's experience with, and opinion of, our schools. This will best be done by having the district provide credible information and by having a board that focuses first and foremost on schools, teachers and students. If we don't turn our enrollment around, TUSD has no chance of competing with other districts and charters who are here to educate our kids.
• John Hunnicutt: Leadership.
• Cam Juarez: In my opinion, the district needs to become more effective and efficient. They need to develop revenue-generating programming to guard against budget shortfalls, but their biggest problem is their public image. I say again, possibly closing down schools further erodes the district's public image. If we want students back in those empty seats, we need to provide a product they (or their parents) want.
• Robert Medler: I believe the biggest problem in Tucson Unified right now is board leadership. The district has numerous positive aspects, but these are often ignored and instead, focus remains on the unfavorable components. The role of the board should be to improve this image and emphasize its strengths, while acknowledging and fixing the problems. It seems weekly there is a negative headline about something within the district; one step forward, two steps back. Effective communication is an absolute. Governing Board members must be willing to discuss priorities and policies at every opportunity and better control the message. Perhaps more importantly, board members need to be effective listeners. Constituents want to be heard and have their respective concerns addressed.
• Elizabeth "Betts" Putnam-Hidalgo: There are two levels of "biggest problems" facing TUSD. At the state level, youth poverty and the defunding of public education are the greatest problems. At the local level, increasing class sizes, insufficient teacher support and unequal opportunities to learn (as evidenced by a 35-year-old desegregation case) are major factors that contribute to both low achievement and decreasing enrollment.
• Mark Stegeman: The overarching issues are inadequate standards and accountability, throughout the district. The flip side of these problems is inadequate rewards and recognition for employees and volunteers who do outstanding work. We lose many excellent employees because of frustration with the organizational culture. We lose many families who appreciate our teachers because of frustration with the bureaucracy and its apparent indifference to their concerns. Wherever practical, we should try to empower and help our school sites, and then hold them accountable, rather than micro-managing them from central administration. Another problem is inertia: the organization often resists change simply because it is change.
• Alex Sugiyama: The district's biggest problem is that student achievement isn't consistently high enough across all our schools. The district has wonderful schools and teachers, but we have too many schools with C or D labels. We also have graduation rates for some groups of students that are lower than they should be. In the last year, the district has made good progress in raising student achievement, and it needs to continue. I will do my part to support the district's efforts by making policy decisions for educational reasons - not for political reasons.
What are your views on Mexican American Studies? Should TUSD offer the courses?
• Campos-Fleenor: Studies of ethnic cultures and diversity should unite our community, not divide it. The current ethnic studies program is tied up in the court system, and TUSD must adhere to the law. That said, my goal would be to maximize ethnic appreciation within the guidelines of the legal parameters determined by the court system.
• Cotton: I am not in any way opposed to courses that celebrate and educate students about their heritage. However, the current MAS curriculum cannot be implemented without risking the loss of very important funding. Until new legislation is passed or the courts rule in favor of the program, its implementation would have a much higher cost than TUSD can presently afford. The issues surrounding MAS are important, though. To that end, I would propose using the current African-American studies, Pan Asian studies and Native American studies, which are very successful, as a model. A Latin American studies program that explores the rich heritage of Latino history should be designed to be inclusive of many of the diverse Hispanic cultures and be implemented in such a way that does not break the current laws.
• Cuevas: I believe there is a demand for a diverse curriculum. All students would benefit from a multicultural curriculum that they can identify with, yet they would be served well to be exposed to other points of view.
• Ellinwood: I support any program that teaches critical thinking. The MAS program certainly had its problems ... but to its credit, effectively taught critical thinking. Yes, I think TUSD should offer the course, as it already does with Native Americans and African-Americans.
• Foster: I support successful programs that raise student achievement. Mexican American Studies was a research-based, successful program that raised student achievement beyond most programs offered by TUSD. It was the Governing Board's responsibility to protect their students and teachers from the outside politics that diverted attention from improving our schools. The board's lack of action is equally as responsible as the activists for diverting our attention from student achievement and bringing students back to our schools.
• Hunnicutt: In the past, the Mexican American Studies classes did not focus on culture or history. They were found in violation of Arizona statute. All other ethnic studies departments focus on counseling and support. Judges (David) Bury and (A. Wallace) Tashima will determine if the classes should come back or not, and it will be up to the board to see that the court and statute are followed.
• Juarez: The law that outlawed ethnic studies was created as a wedge issue by Phoenix politicians to garner support for their political platforms. This law has managed to create a rift in our otherwise civil and respectful community. The fact is, I support MAS or any other academic program that will help to close the achievement gap at TUSD. I think MAS was an educational program with merit, one that was driving student achievement, engagement and higher graduation rates. I think it imperative that we support any program that can get students to want to learn, to excel.
• Medler: Whether it is a class, sports team, club or organization, I think any program that accumulates so much negative attention, expends significant resources and divides the community does not belong in a school district. Right or wrong, the Arizona Legislature passed a law which after an investigation by the state superintendent of public instruction found the district to be in violation. Facing a $15 million penalty, the district did not have a choice. In the best interest of all students, it had to comply. With that said, I do not have a position on the actual Mexican American Studies program that was previously within district schools. I think it is important new Governing Board members come with a willingness to listen to all parties and formulate their position based on facts, not rumors and half-truths.
• Putnam-Hidalgo: Mexican American Studies courses should be offered. In addition, TUSD has a responsibility to improve the multicultural value of its American history offering, and to include this region's history in its curriculum. The experiences of Native American, Chinese, African-American and Mexican men and women should be included in our standard (Anglo) history of the United States. TUSD should value diversity, and should demonstrate this commitment in the classroom. This would bring history to life for many students and improve critical thinking skills.
• Stegeman: TUSD should include more Mexican American history, culture and perspective in high school social studies core courses, to benefit all students. I also support electives such as regional history and Mexican-American literature, in compliance with state law. It is important to expose students to different political viewpoints without driving students toward a particular viewpoint. (I never supported the "ethnic studies" law, but TUSD had no realistic options for indefinitely postponing compliance. Fewer than 5 percent of TUSD's students ever took a MAS course, and accepting a huge funding cut would have hurt all students. Therefore, I stand by my vote to end the MAS courses.)
• Sugiyama: The Mexican American Studies issue is an important one for me, as my parents came to the U.S. from Latin America, and I didn't learn English until I started going to nursery school. I grew up in a world where I was impacted by both American culture and my family's cultures. I believe that TUSD students need to learn about and hopefully appreciate our history and understand our diversity. I have supported the district's plan to create a meaningful multicultural curriculum that can provide cultural awareness, and TUSD is working toward that goal. There is no reason to have a curriculum that creates political theater when we can accomplish the same goals in a noncontroversial manner.