When Stephen Trejo, one of four finalists in the running to become Tucson Unified School District’s next superintendent, was asked at a public forum Monday night how he would build consensus with a divided school board, the crowd chuckled.
To many in the room, the term “divided board” was an understatement.
Trejo — the first of the four finalists to face the public at a series of forums scheduled this week — sounded like somewhat of a relationship counselor as he responded to the question, saying he would work with board members to attempt to reset relations.
“It’s really hard to apologize to someone when you think they have wronged you. But I’ve found that to be very effective — even if they have wronged you, you sincerely apologize to them,” he said, adding that board members all want the best for students but don’t know how to get along with each other.
Trejo noted that board relations are an important part of student success, citing a study that looked at the interactions of school board members across the country and found a correlation between school board members that don’t get along with each other, and poorly performing school districts.
Standing on a stage in front of about 100 parents, teachers, TUSD board members and employees, Trejo fielded two hours of questions from the audience, offering his opinion on everything from TUSD’s low test scores, the district’s decades-old desegregation lawsuit, Mexican American Studies, teacher certification and retention, and how he’ll stop the “revolving door” plaguing the superintendent’s position.
Trejo retired from TUSD’s C.E. Rose K-8 School in July 2016, capping a 23-year career with the district. In his 13 years as C.E. Rose principal, he turned the formerly failing south-side campus into a nationally recognized school and a gem of Tucson’s largest school district. Since leaving TUSD, he has been working as the chief academic officer for the American Leadership Academy, a Gilbert-based charter school with campuses in Arizona and Nevada.
Roughly two-thirds of TUSD students failed the AzMERIT test administered in the spring, according to unofficial results, and turning around student performance on standardized tests was on many minds at the forum.
Trejo said improving student achievement is his top goal, and while some may not like standardized tests, that’s how the district is judged. To that end, he wants to reorganize the district leadership to ensure they’re focused on results.
That, he said, would allow teachers to focus on both lead measures, such as ongoing grades, and lag measures, such as standardized test scores.
But, he noted, even the best plans to help improve student performance will fall flat if the execution is botched.
“It’s not just about having great ideas,” Trejo said. “Really, where the rubber hits the road is execution.”
As C.E. Rose principal, Trejo said he visited every classroom every day, and he wants to implement that concept districtwide. When principals are in every classroom, they know what’s working and what’s not, he said. And they can recognize teachers who are succeeding and zero in on helping teachers who are struggling.
“Some teachers may take that as micromanaging, but I never took it that way,” he said.
Perhaps the biggest issue facing the next superintendent will be whether they can bring TUSD out from under a federal desegregation order.
And although Trejo acknowledged that in his capacity as a principal, he wasn’t actively involved in the legal negotiations, he said he believes everyone involved wants to end the case and that the district is getting closer to satisfying some of the judge’s demands.
“I think we’re close but we need to continue to fulfill the criteria they’ve set in front of us,” he said.
When faced with questions of TUSD’s controversial Mexican American Studies program, Trejo noted he has a degree in Spanish with a minor in Latin American Studies and has spent his career working with Hispanic students.
“It’s really important to me that they love their heritage and that they understand it and that they have the opportunity to learn more about it,” he said.
Trejo also may have jumped into hot water with the teachers’ union, which has pushed back against a new state law that allows uncertified teachers to teach in the classroom. Trejo said he would love to be able to hire non-certified teachers.
“We have a lot of classrooms without teachers, and we have lots of talented people out there with degrees. And some, frankly, without degrees,” he said.
The forum crowd again chuckled when Trejo was asked how he would address the “strong sense among TUSD employees that the superintendent’s office is plagued by a revolving door.”
If selected, Trejo would be the seventh permanent, interim or acting superintendent in the past decade.
Trejo replied that he didn’t have a silver bullet to stay in the board’s good favor, but as a longtime principal of TUSD’s C.E. Rose, Trejo said he often just tried to ignore the board.
“I think part of the reason C.E. Rose was successful was because the same person was there; there wasn’t this revolving door that kind of creates a new program, a new approach to education year after year,” he said. “In fact, I hate to say this because some of the board members are in the room, but sometimes we just kind of did our own thing.”