After years of upheaval over budget shortfalls, school closures and Mexican American Studies, no less than 12 candidates have stepped forward to say they're better-suited to lead the Tucson Unified School District.

Three of them are incumbents.

One of the biggest problems the district is facing is a $17 million budget deficit for the next school year, which has forced the board to consider options to close the gap, like school closures, increased class sizes, pay cuts, staff reductions and the elimination of programs.

Declining enrollment coupled with state budget cuts have been cited as reasons for the budget shortfall.

The board will vote on how to handle the deficit in December, before any new board members take office.

That hasn't stopped the candidates from voicing their views on the issue.

Many of the challengers say the district lacks strong leadership. Incumbents cite the district's recent improvements in certain areas, but still acknowledge problems remain.

"Now that I'm on the board, I can see how complicated it is, the rules and regulations that there are and how easy it is for the board members to micro-manage the district," said incumbent Alexandre B. Sugiyama. "TUSD is not a business. It needs to be managed differently and not micro-managed."

Board member Mark Stegeman said he's worked hard to address many of the problems, but more needs to be done.

"Obviously, I've tried to be honest about those problems," Stegeman said. "Whatever I've done is a small fraction of what needs to be done."

Board President Miguel Cuevas said he worked with former board member Judy Burns to reform policies that were at least 40 years old.

"And you wonder why TUSD is being mismanaged," he said.

Most of the prospective candidates say the school board needs to demand more accountability and transparency from administrators.

Here is how the challengers addressed some of the issues:

Debe Campos-Fleenor:

"The most important issue facing TUSD today is financial accountability," she said in her campaign statement. "Eliminating top-heavy administrative spending and focusing our budget on the classroom is crucial for our students and the surrounding community to succeed."

Ralph Ellinwood:

"I think the board has got to ask the kinds of questions to implement their policies and see that this is successful," he said. "I think it's very important that the board starts insisting on accountability."

Robert Medler:

"The state Legislature is not easy to work with," he said. "You have to be willing to go up the road, sit down and have the heart-to-heart conversation" with legis-lators.

Don Cotton:

"How can we tell legislators that we are responsible as board members in TUSD when we are spending money foolishly?" he said. "We need to maintain our house before we ask for additional money."

Kristel Ann Foster:

"Before we can prioritize, we need to see the budget. It's really hard to look at some line items and make some distinct decisions without knowing what we're talking about," she said. "Show me your budget, and I'll show you your priorities."

John Hunnicutt:

"When the parents get pushed out, they become uninvolved. They think 'Oh we're not supposed to be there,' " he said, responding to a question at a recent forum about the role of school site councils. "They can certainly encourage parental involvement, and the easiest way of doing it is through site councils."

Cam Juarez:

"I will support investments in early childhood development. Pre-K programs, like the one housed at Ochoa Elementary, lay the foundation for a love of learning and a basis for academic success," he said in his campaign statement. "Moreover, these Early Learning Centers can use some of the empty space at under-enrolled schools and have the potential of becoming feeder programs into many TUSD elementary schools."

Elizabeth "Betts" Putnam-Hidalgo:

"The district needs to model the kind of political process that we want to see. If the district responds to the people who are the stakeholders in the district, it will encourage and motivate people to take action at a higher political level," she said, responding to a question regarding how to advocate for more education money from state lawmakers.

Menelik Bakari:

"I fervently support placing education at the forefront of our state, city and town's agenda by paying particular attention to budget overrides and bond elections," he said in his campaign statement.