Education Issues 

An incumbent battles two challengers for two Amphitheater School District board seats

Voters will be selecting two Amphitheater School District governing board members next Tuesday among three choices: Jeff Grant, Susan Zibrat and Scott Leska.

Grant, 64, is currently president of the board of the north/northwest-side school district and works as a human-resources director. His four children attended Amphi schools, and he was first elected to the board in 2002.

"I really want to see the district continue in a positive direction," Grant says about why he's running again.

Zibrat is a 51-year-old homemaker with a long résumé of volunteering for the district. Her children have gone to Amphi schools, and one is still enrolled.

"I value the public-school system," says Zibrat, a self-described introvert, about why she's seeking public office. "It's a way to give back."

An engineer, Leska, 39, has lived in the district most of his life. He recently pulled two of his children out of Amphi schools and enrolled them in charters instead.

"The school district is failing," Leska explains, "and the curriculum was not meeting my standards. My main concern is to raise standards so (our children) can compete on a world level."

Grant, on the other hand, indicates that Amphi students across the board perform above state AIMS standards. "We're going in the right direction," he claims.

Citing Arizona Auditor General statistics, Grant adds that in the last five years, the percentage of district classroom spending has gone up, while administrative expenditures have dropped.

Zibrat has served on the Amphi blue-ribbon committees and was involved with the successful 2007 school-bond election. "I never thought I'd run, but I couldn't turn my back on the district," she says. "There are hard decisions that need to be made, and maybe a little reform is coming, also."

One area that concerns Zibrat involves employee morale. She thinks the April layoff notice sent to hundreds of teachers—even though some were later rehired—had an impact.

"Communication needs to improve," Zibrat suggests. "The employees are not feeling valued."

If elected, Leska says he'd focus on school curriculum and thinks the process of selecting textbooks needs more involvement.

While he's highly complimentary of district teachers, Leska says that new teaching methods, some of which he calls "weird," need to be looked at by parents to determine whether those methods are working.

"We should hash out the (curriculum) issues to create solutions to the problem," Leska says. "We need to reach out to parents and teachers (to do this)."

In Grant's opinion, the Amphi board might want to focus more attention on different approaches to communicating with the state Legislature. "We need to impress upon them the importance of public education," he says.

With decreasing state financial support, Grant continues: "The Amphi board has done a lot to offset that decline in state funding." He lists grants that have been obtained and cites Project EXCELL!, a program to improve student achievement in the district's high-need schools.

Grant also hopes Proposition 100, the statewide temporary sales-tax increase approved by the voters in May, will help ease the financial crunch on school districts.

Leska believes Amphi initially needs to look internally to cut waste. He mentions the practice of leaving lights and air-conditioning on at one particular school during the summer as an example.

"The district hasn't looked at itself when spending funds like that," Leska says. He thinks the reason is administrators believe that if utility money isn't spent, the money will be cut from the budget.

Zibrat says about the deteriorating financial picture: "I don't know how the district kept the doors open the last two years." As to what can be done in the future, she says the board will have to consider cutting certain capital costs and increasing class sizes.

While she thinks more teacher layoffs may be coming, Zibrat stresses: "I want to be part of keeping the district healthy, even though they're up against a wall."

At the same time, Zibrat points out that the district is facing state mandates for student performance. One area she mentions is more required resources for some third-graders.

According to state statistics, Amphi third-graders from economically disadvantaged households scored below the Arizona 2008 AIMS average. Leska believes reaching out to the parents of these children to help develop solutions is critical.

"But they work—often two jobs," Leska says of these parents, "so we'll have to create an environment to allow them to get involved."

Grant indicates the district already has a number of programs in place for these students, but he thinks more can be done.

"We need to have administrators at the schools who act independently," he says. "We should combine raising teacher effectiveness with on-the-spot decisions."

Grant asks for votes by saying: "My experience counts, and my dedication to the district is apparent."

Zibrat emphasizes: "I really care about the district and public education. Plus, I have heart. I don't know all the solutions, but I'll work hard and will work with people."

Calling himself "extremely passionate" about education, Leska thinks the nation needs to raise its academic standards.

Asked whether he would place his children back in Amphi schools if elected, Leska points out that he'd only be one vote on a five person board. Then he says: "When the curriculum improves, I will put them back in."

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