Tuesday, August 21, 2012

TUSD Town Halls Off to Rocky Start?

Posted By on Tue, Aug 21, 2012 at 4:44 PM

Monday, Aug. 20, was the first in a series of three Tucson Unified School District town hall meetings, and going by comments and criticism offered by those who spoke, the town halls may be off to a rocky start.

For example, in attendance at Sahuaro High School was South Tucson Mayor Jennifer Eckstrom, who questioned what kind of town hall TUSD was running considering only two out of five TUSD board members showed up. (See video above, courtesy of Three Sonorans.) She also questioned how the town hall was organized.

A podium was set on one side of the stage, while TUSD officials sat on the opposite end. Questions from the public had to be written on cards and school officials had to walk back and forth until Superintendent John Pedicone suggested they stay put.

A microphone was set up on the floor, and when it came time for public comment, all TUSD officials left the stage, leaving Eckstrom and TUSD parent and Mexican-American studies supporter Jana Happel wondering out loud who they were directing comments to. In Happel's case, she had a question, but no one was left on stage to answer.

The next town hall meeting is tomorrow, Wednesday, Aug. 22, at Cholla Magnet High School, 6:30-8:30 p.m., 2001 W. Starr Pass Blvd.

If folks weren't happy that only two school board members showed up at Monday's town hall meeting, others are concerned that a westside town hall was scheduled the same night as the Tucson Magnet High School open house. Those living on the west-side with ties to Tucson High will have to make a decision — at least that's how folks at 1010 see it.

"The town halls will not be rescheduled, but there are other opportunities for people to participate among the three town halls and the chance to watch the town halls on our website and then offer feedback," TUSD communications director Cara Rene replied to our e-mail asking if rescheduling was ever considered.

The reality is, if you know your community and the different neighborhoods of Tucson, you'd consider rescheduling. The reality is that those who live on the westside but need to attend the Tucson High open house will be shut out of their neighborhood's only town hall.

Although Eckstrom made her way from South Tucson to Sahuaro High School on the eastside, let's be clear, there is a history here and she is an elected official with a mission — to support keeping Ochoa and Mission View elementary schools open. The School Master Plan is suppose to be the topic of the town halls, and past discussion at school board meetings is the possible closure of schools and the construction of larger centralized schools. It's not odd for Eckstrom to be there. She and her father, former Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, helped the community fight TUSD in the past to keep Ochoa open.

Read our story here "Political Realities" from the school closure mess three superintendents ago:

The proposal—brought to the board in February by Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer—would close Corbett, Rogers, Wrightstown and Ochoa elementary schools.

This discussion about politics troubles TUSD Board President Alex Rodriguez. He says he's especially troubled by references in past newspaper coverage that describe this issue as all about politics.

But the events just before a March 18 public hearing at Ochoa Elementary School, in the heart of South Tucson, were, in fact, all about politics.

A rally was called to order by retired Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, who was flanked by his daughter, South Tucson Mayor Jennifer Eckstrom, and protégé/county Supervisor Ramón Valadez, who was toting his young son Daniel on his shoulders. Also in the group: state Rep. Linda Lopez and Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal.

The politicos were surrounded by almost 600 parents, children and community members on the school steps, wearing "Save Ochoa School" T-shirts and "I Vote" buttons—a reminder to voter-fearing politicians and school-board members that, yes, school closures have political consequences.

Dan Eckstrom joked with the crowd, speaking in half-Spanish and half-English that he came out of retirement to fight for Ochoa. The crowd, holding signs like "Ochoa Por Vida!" and "Our School Is the Heart of Our Neighborhood," cheered him on. The reach into the community even brought out Father Fernando Pinto of the Santa Cruz Church to do a blessing in the midst of Easter Holy Week.

"It's very wise to call upon divine intervention, always, anytime," Pinto said.

After giving each politician a moment to speak, Dan Eckstrom shouted into the microphone: "Tonight, we need to fight. ... We need to be loud. ... Go in there, and tell them how you feel. Don't be afraid."

Then Eckstrom directed the crowd to form a human chain around the main school building before heading in for the hearing.

If the mariachi music, the words from Brian Flagg of Casa Maria or the entire crowd singing "De Colores" in unison didn't move Pfeuffer and the board members to change their minds, it certainly should have provided Rodriguez with evidence that this is, indeed, all about politics.

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