The other day I was talking with a friend over coffee. The topic of our conversation was the Tucson Unified School District. TUSD is the largest district in the county, and one of the worst. The future of Pima County will be determined by local K-12 education, so it is a topic that concerns everyone in our community.
At one point in our conversation, the term “culture” was mentioned. Sometimes you hear a word in a given context and it sticks in your mind — this was one of those times.
It reminded me of a quotation from Tony Hsieh, a great innovator in retailing who took a small shoe store on the brink of failure and turned it into the biggest online shoe retailer in history. Zappos is now part of Amazon.
In his book, “Delivering Happiness,” he said, “Your personal core values define who you are, and a company’s core values ultimately define the company’s character and brand. For individuals, character is destiny. For organizations, culture is destiny.”
Few would argue that TUSD does not have major problems. Many of these problems, from low student academic achievement to an apparent inability to deal with student discipline, have led to a shrinking student population. Student enrollment has dropped from around 60,000 in 2000 to around 46,000 in 2016.
According to the Arizona Auditor General, TUSD also spends less money in the classroom and more on administration than its peer districts. So, could the corporate culture of TUSD be the unifying theory or explanation for its shortcomings?
I asked Chris DeSimone, host of the “Wake Up Tucson” talk radio show on KVOI, to describe TUSD. He said, “TUSD seems like a big social program combined with giving really good jobs to buddies. Student performance and curricula do not seem to be high on their list.”
I have found this to be a common perception in the community.
I went closer to the source and asked long-serving member of the TUSD Governing Board, Dr. Mark Stegeman, the same question.
He said, “TUSD’s problems are deeply embedded in the institutional culture.”
Well, there you go. The more I spoke with Tucsonans, the more I heard people supporting the idea of TUSD existing as a social program rather than an educational institution. One man told me that, while on the TUSD website, he had to wade through links to enrollment forms, diversity efforts and homeless support, before finally getting to a link that described the curriculum. He added that the curriculum was on the first page of links on the BASIS charter school site.
If you are losing students to the Vail Unified School District and charter schools, would you not want to see what those schools are doing that is enticing enough to parents to make the switch?
I asked Dr. Stegeman if he thought that a change in the corporate culture of TUSD was possible. He said he thinks it is, but added, “It takes years of strong visionary and consistent leadership to affect a cultural change.”