Tucson Unified School District finalist says communication key

Superintendent candidate tells audience he'll listen during first six months
2013-06-13T00:00:00Z 2013-06-13T16:59:14Z Tucson Unified School District finalist says communication keyAlexis Huicochea Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

TUSD superintendent finalist H.T. Sanchez says he doesn't believe in silver bullets that will solve all of education's challenges, but he does believe that communication is the key to addressing those problems head on.

He spoke to an audience of about 100 people Wednesday evening at Catalina Magnet High School, 3645 E. Pima St., answering questions on a wide range of topics.

The 38-year-old is the sole finalist vying to become the leader of Tucson Unified School District.

Sanchez, who runs a district in Odessa, Texas, didn't pretend to have all of the answers, saying his stay in Tucson over the last several days hasn't been long enough to formulate an informed opinion.

"The first six months have to be about listening because there are more things that bring us together as human beings than divide us," Sanchez said.

Asked about his vision for TUSD, Sanchez again deferred to the public, saying a good leader will work with the community to identify the vision.

He did, however, offer his views on issues including:

• Why TUSD, why now? "I truly believe that I'm not here by accident. I believe there's a reason I'm here. My experiences match up with many of the challenges that are here."

• On equity in education: "Education is the civil right of the 21st century. It's not about equal access - we already have that. It's about equitable outcomes."

• On TUSD's desegregation order: It's a matter of "honoring the dignity of those whose dignity, at one time, was violated." It's about understanding what it takes to restore what they feel was lost, he said.

• On charter schools: "Anything they offer, we can offer better. I believe we do offer a better product."

• On school closures: "I believe we can rise up and do great work and people will want to come back."

• On undocumented immigrant students: The law says we cannot discriminate, Sanchez said. He added it's not an educator's job to determine who is in the country legally and that children are "passive participants" in breaking the law.

• On common core standards: "There's something noble in wanting to make sure every American knows at least these things, but we should never allow ourselves to be limited by those things. It's the floor, not the ceiling."

• On teaching controversial topics, such as evolution, climate change and Mexican American Studies: It's his personal and professional opinion that a teacher's job is not to "indoctrinate" students, but to empower young people to think critically so they can come to their own conclusions.

• On whether Mexican American Studies should be in the curriculum: "It needs to be in there, but so does everybody else's story."

• On guns in school: "I'm a right-to-bear-arms kind of guy, but I don't believe in the right to bear arms on campus if you're not a trained law enforcement professional."

Frances Banales, president of the teachers union, came away from the forum with a positive feeling.

"He did a great job," Banales said. "I think he would bring a lot to TUSD. He's not so set in his ways. We need somebody that can think out of the box, is willing to listen, who doesn't think he's the know-it-all."

Banales was pleased to hear Sanchez mention a five-year plan, indicating that he is committed to staying with TUSD for the long-term despite a reputation of being a "job hopper."

"Often, if someone is a rising star, they are asked to move up," she said. "He took advantage of opportunities."

Jessica Pacheco, a self-described proponent of education, attended the forum even though one of her children goes to a private school and her other two go to another local district.

Pacheco said she appreciated Sanchez's humility and felt that he respects diversity of all kinds. Sanchez communicated a desire for transparency and honesty, something she feels has been lacking, she said.

On StarNet: See photos of superintendents of the recent past at azstarnet.com/gallery

Sanchez makes assessment of reaction to him

Even as he was being grilled by the community, Tucson Unified School District superintendent candidate H.T. Sanchez was doing an assessment of his own, looking to see how he is received by the public.

Sanchez, a 38-year-old native Texan, went into Wednesday night's public forum hoping to find a community that is "ready to do amazing things for kids, that wants to challenge the status quo in education."

"Tonight I'll hear if people are ready for that," the father of two said in an interview prior to the forum. "As much as they'll be interviewing me, that'll be my opportunity to interview them and know if this is the right place."

Sanchez, who currently leads a school district of 30,000 students in Odessa, Texas, says he is committed to leading TUSD only if that is what the community wants.

He is a strong believer in going where he is needed and wanted. You can find proof of that in his résumé, which shows six employers, two of which employed him for two separate stints, over 15 years.

For the most part, Sanchez said he was recruited into every position he has held.

With two young children, ages 2 and 6, he said he is now seeking a "longtime" home for his family.

"In all my reflection, I want a place where whatever talents I've been blessed with can match, but also I want a place where my wife and kids can grow up and be part of the community," Sanchez said. "I've always prayed and asked God to take me where he wants me. If this is where I'm needed, this is where I'll be."

While there's no guarantee Sanchez won't find himself needed elsewhere in a couple of years, he noted he has already been looking for houses here, and flew his wife and daughter into town - something he has never done before. And he has thought about whether his 6-year-old will attend the University of Arizona or his alma mater, Texas A&M.

He said what attracted him most to TUSD was that he found many parallels with the work he has done throughout his career, including issues of improving academic achievement, enrollment, desegregation and budget crunches.

"It seems everything I have learned as well as taught at the university level, written, published, presented at universities in the U.S. and abroad, seemed to match," he said. "I was very interested."

While Sanchez has never been a superintendent, aside from his current three-month tenure as an interim leader of the Ector County Independent School District, he has been a finalist for top posts before.

He withdrew after becoming a finalist in El Paso, saying "I don't believe I would have been the right decision for them. Everything works out the way it needs to be and you know almost instantly if you'll have a connection."

He said that spark was evident when he met with the TUSD Governing Board, and he praised their selflessness and ability to make tough decisions. "In meeting with the board, I could hear it wasn't about them," Sanchez said. "I could hear that through their questions because they weren't focused on making TUSD look good, but on doing good things for students and taking care of the community."

Even though his experience has been at smaller school district, Sanchez said he's confident he can take on TUSD's many long-standing challenges.

"I don't believe in scale," he said "If you do what's right for the individual learner, the individual teacher, the individual food service profession or the individual principal, then you do well for many.

"What that means is you have to build relationships and get to know people and be willing to sit down and talk to them. You have to return the calls and the emails. You have to be willing to knock on their doors, walk into their homes, trust them, take a look around, compliment them, shake their hand genuinely and appreciate who they are."

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

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

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