In a March 17 column, Star columnist Ernesto Portillo Jr. sharply criticizes my vote against the TUSD board’s decision to display the flags of the Pascua-Yaqui and Tohono O’odham nations in its boardroom, equal in size to the U.S. and Arizona flags. The account omitted relevant facts and made one grossly false statement.

I write to correct the record and to make a larger point: TUSD too often focuses on symbolism rather than substance. The board could have better served its Native American students by discussing how to improve the historically weak performance of schools serving the tribal areas.

Portillo states falsely that I have “not publicly led initiatives to improve educational services to Native American students.” I was the strongest board advocate (publicly and privately) for preserving the former Richey school, which served the Old Pascua community along West Grant Road. In 2010 I vigorously opposed Richey’s closure, inviting tribal leaders to speak to the board about their desire to work toward joint arrangements to keep the school open.

The board nonetheless voted 3-2 to close Richey. The transfer of those students to Roskruge was marred by a trail of broken promises.

In 2013, neighborhood leaders and I persuaded the district to develop a plan to reopen Richey school in stages, but board support was weak and this was scaled back to reopening only a preschool. The district’s half-hearted commitment led to low enrollment and the program’s cancellation after a year.

I still believe closing Richey was a mistake.

The TUSD school that currently serves the most Native American students, about half of its enrollment, is Lawrence. Only 17-18 percent of Lawrence’s students passed the state math and reading tests last year, and its state-assigned grade is F. According to the state’s scoring formula (including charter schools) it is currently the second-worst school in the Tucson region.

This is not new. Lawrence has consistently received D or F grades since 2012. As far as I know, Portillo has never written about the tragedies of Richey and Lawrence.

At the TUSD board meeting, one member supporting the resolution said, “Absolutely (placing the flags) has to do with education because (this) is the foundation of our educational program: striving for equality, for representation, for voice.”

I respectfully disagree. Education means teaching facts and skills. There is nothing wrong with symbolism and gestures of respect (I have voted for more than I can count); the danger arises when the surrounding spectacle of self-congratulation seems to persuade the board that it has done something to improve TUSD’s students’ education.

Another problem in TUSD’s board culture is, too often, an apparent desire to score political points rather than to reach compromise.

During my current term as board president, I have repeatedly delayed action on measures in a (sometimes successful) effort to reach greater consensus. During the flag discussion, board member Rachael Sedgwick proposed a compromise that would have secured my vote, but the majority was uninterested. Instead, one member repeatedly declared that she was “floored” and “shocked” by my position.

Portillo discounts my statement during the meeting that my concerns about the flag resolution intended no disrespect for the tribal leaders present. He omits that, after the vote, I personally invited the leaders to make a special presentation of their flags at installation and speak to their significance.

(Portillo contacted me after the board meeting but bluntly stated that he wasn’t interested in anything I might say at that point. He was merely giving a “heads-up” that he would criticize my vote.)The TUSD board should focus on the schools’ genuine educational and operational issues and do so in a climate of respect and collaboration. Otherwise its chances of overseeing the huge reforms necessary for TUSD to compete head-to-head with its strongest charter competitors are dim.

Mark Stegeman is the TUSD Governing Board president and member of the economics faculty at the Eller College at the University of Arizona.