TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez took on the role of myth buster in his third State of the District address.
Sanchez highlighted awards that have been bestowed on the Tucson Unified School District during his three-year tenure, its commitment to bringing high school dropouts back to school and efforts to expose more children to advanced learning opportunities as evidence against claims of do-nothingness often leveled against TUSD.
He addressed claims that TUSD wastes money and clings to its decades-old desegregation case, saying both claims are false.
The TUSD budget process is monitored extensively to ensure that sound decisions are being made, Sanchez said in his speech Monday night. He applauded the effort of TUSD’s finance department, which has worked to stretch funds and provide raises in a time of severe budget cuts.
During Sanchez’s tenure, TUSD has shifted more than 100 administrative jobs to schools, allowing the district to budget nearly 51 percent of its funding in classrooms for 2016, he said. When instructional and student support is factored in, it increases to nearly 67 percent.
The district also implemented the use of purchase cards for goods and services, for which it receives rebates. After three years, TUSD is approaching $2 million in rebates, some of which is being put toward the purchase of new uniforms for the district’s award-winning Rincon/University High marching band
In terms of TUSD’s desegregation case, Sanchez said the district is committed to making a good faith effort to bring racial balance to its schools and that the taxpayer dollars are not being treated like a slush fund.
TUSD will seek to get out from under the federal court order next school year and has already cut desegregation spending by nearly $5 million to $59 million, lowering the tax rate, Sanchez said.
“We lowered our tax rate by 16.7 cents last year, that doesn’t sound like a lot but when you take a look at the total reduction it added up to more than $3.3 million for Tucson taxpayers,” Sanchez said. “In terms of wasting money, throwing money away, I think that’s a good record.”
Much of that desegregation savings came from reduced fuel costs, Sanchez told the Star later, as well as a court order to pay for some services out of the maintenance and operation fund rather than the desegregation budget.
In the area of academic achievement, Sanchez said TUSD continues to work to provide a timeless curriculum for students that he describes as minimum level of excellence. He said that means every child, regardless of the school he or she attends, will be prepared for the next level in his or her education, work and life.
That curriculum is on its third version as TUSD leadership works with teachers to ensure that students are getting what they need, he said.
Sanchez is setting his sights on TUSD facilities, that on average are 46 years old. The district is in the process of developing a facilities improvement plan, which the district hopes to fund with a successful bond election later this year.
Sanchez said he continues to seek a better graduation rate, which currently exceeds the state rate, and to improve TUSD’s diversity.
Sanchez did not directly discuss strategies to bring students back to TUSD. The district has lost more than 10 percent of its enrollment — about 5,400 students — since 2010.
Nearly 1,400 of those students who have left TUSD have done so under Sanchez’s leadership.
The TUSD leader also did not mention the performance of Southern Arizona’s largest school district on the state mandated test, AzMERIT. In it, 28 percent of students passed English Language Arts and 25 percent passed math — lower than both the state and county averages.
During a Q&A session Sanchez said he disliked AzMERIT and thinks it’s a bad assessment tool.
“We need to move away from the national bad habit of teaching to the test and teach students,” Sanchez said in response to a question about how long it will be before Common Core curriculum is phased out in Arizona.
“When I want to know how my kindergartner is doing and when I want to know how my third-grade daughter is doing I don’t look at the state test, I go and I have a conversation with their teachers … and by and large, they’re spot on and for some reason nationally we stopped doing that and it makes no sense.”