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Tim Steller, columnist at the Arizona Daily Star.

Some labels just burn you — like vendido.

The obvious translation is “sellout,” but it can mean something stronger, closer to “traitor.”

Some of the ex-friends of Pueblo Magnet High School principal Augustine Romero have been calling him a vendido for two or three years. They say he sold out when Tucson Unified School District ended its old Mexican-American Studies program — a program he helped create — but he stayed in the district as a high-paid administrator.

You would think he’s grown used to it, but last weekend Romero finally snapped.

In an unseemly display that one of Romero’s critics videotaped, Romero got into a shouting match with former Mexican-American Studies director Sean Arce and was led out of a conference room at the Hilton El Conquistador. The clash followed an increasingly angry display from Romero in which he lashed out at board member Adelita Grijalva and others during a discussion at the National Association of Multicultural Educators conference.

“That’s semantic bull****,” Romero said when questioned about his claim that ethnic studies has returned to TUSD. “That’s straight-up semantic bull***.”

Romero’s eruptions naturally raise questions about whether he has the right temperament to be a principal — a job he assumed for the first time this school year. But the episode also raised broader questions for me, about where TUSD’s new ethnic studies program is headed and whether it’s time for a clean break from Old MAS and its aggrieved actors.

As to Romero’s behavior, it can be explained by the difficult relationships among those in the room, but not excused. The room was full of current and former participants in TUSD’s old Mexican-American Studies program, which the state found illegal and the district closed in 2012 after months of anguish and protest. Arce, formerly a close collaborator and friend of Romero, lost his job and went downhill, getting arrested in December 2012 for domestic violence.

For the hard core of Old MAS supporters, such as videographer David Abie Morales, the program’s closure remains a raw injustice carried out by racist state officials that still needs to be made right. While recording, Morales repeatedly asked Romero why TUSD hadn’t brought back the old Mexican American Studies program, since now the district is under federal court order to re-establish ethnic studies courses.

Deploying the favored College of Education lingo, Romero repeatedly argued that, “It’s back.”

“Culturally responsive pedagogy and instruction, the theoretical framework, the pedagogical understandings, the pedagogical realities; it’s back,” he said.

Board president Adelita Grijalva was in the room for the 20-minute session, which she said was an unscheduled gathering that brought together the participants in two previous, related conference sessions.

“It’s very emotional anytime you get a group of people together who were very invested in Mexican American Studies,” she said. Speaking of Romero, she said, “You get beat up so much, and he’s had to sit while all of his contributions were discounted. So much of that was Mr. Morales picking a scab that day.”

True enough, but when I asked board member Mark Stegeman to review Morales’ videotape, he said the obvious: “I think it’s very unprofessional conduct by Dr. Romero.”

TUSD is looking into it, but considering the support Romero has had on the board, he’s unlikely to face much punishment.

Bigger questions are whether MAS really “is back,” as Romero insisted — and whether that’s a good thing. Stegeman and Grijalva were quick to point out that they can’t bring back the exact same program.

Outgoing Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal found that the old program violated a state law intended to rein it in, and he threatened TUSD with losing $15 million in funding. An administrative law judge agreed with his opinion. The district can’t risk that $15 million threat, especially with a conservative new state superintendent coming in.

That’s why Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Steve Holmes has been working with the state Department of Education to ensure that the new curriculum does not violate the state law. It forbids courses that: promote the overthrow of the U.S. government, promote resentment toward a race or class of people, and advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.

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The tightrope TUSD is walking involves teaching a curriculum that still derives from a politically radical approach called “critical theory” while avoiding crossing those legal lines.

It’s worth doing, finds new research led by a University of Arizona assistant professor of educational policy studies and practice, Nolan Cabrera.

The new study, which derives from earlier research he led, finds that “There’s a consistent significant positive relationship between taking Mexican American Studies and student achievement,” Cabrera said.

The study, recently published online by the American Educational Research Journal, controlled for factors such as gender, socioeconomic status and ethnic background, Cabrera said.

If the approach really yields good results, then we should be happy ethnic studies courses have returned to four high schools and will be taken to other schools soon, under the federal court order. Perhaps what leaves me uneasy is the characteristic macho posturing that the Old MAS players displayed last weekend.

Ironically, Romero may have pointed to a positive way forward for court-ordered ethnic studies in TUSD: As much as possible, wipe the slate clean of the old aggrieved actors like him and his critics in that room while putting in place the new program.

It won’t be easy.

Grijalva pointed out that ethnic-studies teachers get a tremendous amount of additional scrutiny from the state without additional pay from the district.

But it’s the students’ achievements that matter — right? Burdening them with the Old MAS conflict can’t help.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@tucson.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Columnist

Tim Steller is the Star’s metro columnist. A 20-plus year veteran of reporting and editing, he digs into issues and stories that matter in the Tucson area, reports the results and tells you his opinion on it all.