Before we share our candidate endorsements for the Tucson Unified School District board, we offer these facts:

In third grade, four out of 10 students failed the state math test and three out of 10 failed reading last school year. By the eighth grade, it was worse. Six out of 10 failed the math test and nearly four out of 10 failed reading.

Enrollment declined by 6,158 students - 10 percent - between 2000 and the last school year.

We do not offer these dismal statistics simply to disparage TUSD. There are plenty of districts and charter schools with poor, even terrible, test scores. Indeed, American schools on the whole are falling behind those in many other countries when it comes to the percentage of high school graduates who go on to college or who demonstrate basic mastery of math and science.

We focus on TUSD because, as the city's largest school district, its performance is important to the economic future of our community.

That brings us to the TUSD Governing Board, where four candidates are campaigning for two seats. We strongly endorse Armand Salese, and favor incumbent Adelita Grijalva as the best second choice.

Salese is the only candidate who speaks plainly: TUSD is failing too many students, and parents know it.

His involvement with TUSD goes back to the 1970s when, as a lawyer, he represented parents who opposed school closings proposed as part of the desegregation lawsuit settlement. Later, he took up the case of parents in a lawsuit to improve schools on the south and west sides. The district spent $1 billion on desegregation that "pretty much failed," Salese said at a candidates' forum.

He argues that TUSD must set higher expectations and demand better performance. Among his positions are these:

• Cut money from administration and programs outside of the classroom. Permit students to take electives only after they have mastered reading, writing, math, science, social studies and a foreign language. Offer all-day preschool and kindergarten.

• Stop social promotion of students who don't meet standards.

• New teachers are paid less than state prison guards, and that must change. At the same time, he says, we must find effective ways to measure teacher performance and reward the best. Offer failing teachers help to improve, but fire those who don't.

• Give parents ways to become more involved and knowledgeable about their children's performance.

• Don't expect to get more money from the Legislature until TUSD manages its money better. And stop getting into battles the district doesn't need. The state superintendent of public instruction "may not be the sharpest stick in the pile," Salese observes, but that person has a say in funding and the district must work with the superintendent's office.

Salese says he was a high school dropout who enlisted in the military and later went on to become the first in his family to go to college.

While Salese offers some harsh criticism, he's right when he says the district must confront its problems.

That's where our concern comes in with the other candidates.

Grijalva, the incumbent, says she first ran for the board in 2002 because through her job at a diversion program for juvenile offenders, she met teens who were unable to write a letter.

She knows there are problems, but after two terms on the board, she seems unwilling to admit their depth.

Yes, she says, students have left TUSD, but many eventually return. Whatever the churn, the plain fact is that enrollment is down 10 percent in 10 years.

What's needed, she says, is for TUSD "to do a better job of advertising the positive things in our district."

In Grijalva's favor, she's been part of a Governing Board that's recently given more budget control to individual school site councils. We trust parents, teachers and principals to make the best choices.

She doesn't dodge that the community wants "pay for performance" and she says the district must come up with fair and equitable ways to implement it. She also is a strong supporter of early-childhood education.

We believe the other two candidates have too many wrong ideas.

In an interview on KUAT, candidate Miguel Ortega said: "It's not anymore about what we learn or how much we learn, it's how we can become critical thinkers and how we use the tools of today."

Candidate Michael Hicks is critical of TUSD in one breath and in the next says all of the schools in TUSD are great and the faculty are "awesome."

There are some great TUSD schools and many great teachers. But as a whole, the district must do far better for its children.

We endorse Armand Salese and Adelita Grijalva as the two best suited to guide TUSD.

Arizona Daily Star