On the last night of Tucson High Magnet School’s theater season, I saw nationally honored drama teacher Art Almquist draw amazing performances from high school students. TUSD has many such extraordinary programs and teachers.
At Magee Middle School, Marjorie Letson’s Odyssey of the Mind teams dominate Arizona’s competition year after year and are among the best worldwide. Schools such as Carrillo, Drachman and Rose help their students to smash the dreary statistical expectations attached to low family incomes.
Yet these achievements often get lost under the weight of the TUSD brand, which suffers from inefficiency, inconsistency and a weak management culture. Examples show the scope of the problems and the importance of changing the Governing Board majority.
Classrooms in some schools have become so unruly that they erupt into the news, but TUSD tries to bury the issue rather than solve it. When the principal of Booth-Fickett recently discussed the problems publicly, he was removed the next day. He explained in a later interview how TUSD has tried to disguise discipline problems by telling schools to suspend fewer students. This contributes to teacher flight and a teacher vacancy rate much higher than in neighboring districts.
TUSD also tries to wish away rising administrative costs. Its last external audit shows that the number of central administrators grew by 22 percent over the last two years, while enrollment fell steadily.
TUSD claimed last July that it had increased (state-defined) instructional spending to more than half of its budget, but in March the state auditor general showed this was wrong: There had actually been no improvement. TUSD’s calculations were off by millions of dollars.
If TUSD cut the 10.9 percent of its budget spent on pure administration to the average of Arizona’s other large districts (with more than 30,000 students), then it would have $11 million more annually to spend on instruction.
TUSD did poorly in last year’s state testing, but the board has neither received nor requested any report on those AZMerit results. I personally requested the results, months ago, but got no response. It is as if the tests never happened.
The Governing Board fails to address problems effectively because three members (Adelita Grijalva, Kristel Foster and Cam Juarez) act mainly as cheerleaders and vote as a bloc. Most board votes are unanimous, but when votes have split during the H.T. Sanchez administration, the three members voted together 96 percent to 98 percent of the time.
That is abnormal. Board member Michael Hicks and I, outside the majority, voted together in only about 60 percent of those split votes.
Last year, the board majority disrespected the evaluation process by grading the superintendent at 100 percent on all 25 of his performance metrics. Then they greatly raised his compensation for this year to between $427,500 and $493,100, depending on the size of his year-end payment.
None of those performance metrics mentioned student behavior, enrollment growth, the desegregation case or any standard for student achievement. The board majority boasts about invitations to the White House and solar energy awards, instead of focusing on key measures of performance.
When facing difficult issues, the board majority typically ducks accountability and pivots into blaming low state funding, the desegregation case or troublemakers. Attacking individuals instead of problems is a longstanding flaw in TUSD’s culture.
I have a practical 100-day plan that could begin to change TUSD’s course. First is a listening program that includes all stakeholders and protects anonymity. The plan would also streamline administration, invest more in early grades, improve financial accountability, and make other measurable changes.
Similar past proposals have lacked the essential third vote. Progress depends on changing the current board majority and introducing more independent thought.
TUSD has many wonderful assets and great potential. Reaching that potential is critical for attracting businesses and families to Tucson and strengthening its economy. TUSD will not, however, fix itself. In this election year, the community must act.