After 16 years, Pima County is preparing to welcome a new schools chief.
Three educators are vying for the seat of Pima County school superintendent, which has been occupied by Linda Arzoumanian since 2000.
Two Democratic candidates, Dustin Williams and Michael Gordy, are going head-to-head in the Aug. 30 primary election to land a spot on the ballot in November against Republican Margaret Burkholder.
Of the three, only Williams and Burkholder hold valid teaching certificates and are in the classroom. Gordy retired eight years ago after a 28-year teaching career but plans to renew his certification, a requirement to hold the office.
The job, which pays $76,600, is not rooted in policymaking. Rather, it is heavy with administrative duties including conducting bond and override elections, filling vacancies on school boards, overseeing budgets to ensure reporting is accurate, handling registration of teaching certificates and facilitating training opportunities for educators, among other responsibilities.
Nonetheless, each of the hopefuls has aspirations to build support for K-12 education in Pima County.
The Star interviewed the three candidates about their platforms. Their comments were edited for length and clarity.
What do you think about the academic performance of Pima County students?
Burkholder: “There is room for improvement, for sure. We know if you look at data and research, the No. 1 most important aspect in student achievement is the quality of the teacher in the front of the room, so what is Arizona doing to attract and retain quality teachers?” Burkholder says she would urge the state to consider awarding scholarships to students who perform well on AzMERIT and who seek a degree in one of Arizona’s in-demand fields, like teaching. The student would also have to commit to working in the state for a certain period of time.
Gordy: “Judging by testing, one would have to say it’s not particularly good. The problem is when you’re dealing with a standardized test, is the problem the test or is the problem the fact that the kids don’t know the material?” Gordy believes the high-stakes nature of standardized tests impacts student performance, calling it a “gotcha test” rather than a “diagnostic test.” He added that more resources need to be put into schools serving low-income children, given the correlation between performance on tests and socioeconomic status.
Williams: “I think students are working really hard, as hard as they can. I think the AzMERIT test that shows they are failing doesn’t show the true character of our kids. I think there are some areas we can improve upon, but I don’t want to judge our kids solely on one state assessment.” Williams believes that if professional development were geared more toward connecting with students by understanding their backgrounds and implementing culturally relevant teaching, students would be better-served and academic performance would improve.
What is being done well in Pima County K-12 education?
Burkholder: “Teachers are very hardworking, and school districts spend their money wisely. It’s no secret we’re ranked at the bottom when it comes to per-pupil spending, but we’re able to do amazing things — when you look at our scores, we’re quite average in proficiency compared to the rest of the United States.”
Gordy: “In classrooms where they have a highly qualified teacher who is really dedicated to her or his students, I think education is doing well here.”
Williams: “We have a large amount of people and organizations that want to help. I think we are a very caring, close community and I think we’re meeting the needs of most children to the best that we can so far. And we have a lot of great educators that are highly skilled working in this industry.”
What is the biggest problem in Pima County K-12 education and what specific actions would you take to fix it?
Burkholder: “We’ve got to address the funding issue.” Burkholder said she would like to be the “voice and a collaborator” for education in Pima County, advocating for the region at the Legislature, with the governor and with the state superintendent for education. She would also work to connect schools with community organizations that support education.
Gordy: “Funding, because without funding, our options are severely limited.” If Gordy is elected, he intends to gather a group of people who would travel to Phoenix on a weekly basis to speak with “friends of education” and “opponents of education” to convince them of the need to make positive change.
Williams: “I don’t think we’re connected enough. I think we can build our business community to work with education. That’s what I want to do, I want to be that bridge-builder.” Williams says he would conduct a needs assessment for public schools, charter schools, private schools, home schools and parochial schools to connect them with community organizations that can fulfill their needs.
What is your top priority?
Burkholder: “To be vocal and present in the community. I want to be involved in the happenings with the Legislature, the state Board of Education, with the state school superintendent to be sure that our voices are heard. I am the only candidate that is a mother, four kids in public school; I’m a teacher, I’ve been on a very successful school board for 12 years, so I understand all the different perspectives of what’s going on in education from the parent side, from the administrative side and from the boots on the ground doing the work every day. It’s important to have somebody who understands those perspectives so they can advocate for the needs in Pima County.”
Gordy: “Trying to let school districts know that the county superintendent’s office is there as a resource for districts and teachers and education-support professionals. I would like to have a discussion with superintendents of the different districts about the concept of everyone teaches, everyone learns and having district office people fill in for teachers every three weeks. And business partnerships, because the wonder of public education is the more people who are involved, the better everybody is.”
Williams: “The first thing is getting the community to know the position, to know there is a means of assistance for all the districts. The very beginning stage is building a relationship with the community. I’m extremely passionate about education and very interested in making education in our community excellent. I’m a natural leader, I have a lot of charisma and I get people really excited about ideas and working together, and that’s been a gift that I have from being a teacher to being an administrator to being a coach.”