Friday was the application deadline for the Tucson Unified School District superintendent position, soon to be vacated by John Pedicone on June 30. Looking through the online brochure for the job posted by PROACT Search, the company commissioned to conduct the national search, it doesn't seem like a bad gig. A district with 82 schools and "a long history of excellence in student and staff performance" in a city with 360 sunny days a year and "a diversity of cultures, architecture and people"? Sure, there's a mention of the court-ordered desegregation plan and that due to the district's "geographic location and large size, there are significant challenges that are currently being addressed," but that's probably true everywhere, right? The sort of "experienced, visionary leader" that's bound to emerge from this process will probably be psyched to tackle those obstacles.
Well, at least we have to hope one leader emerges. The job description asks a lot of the applicant (there are eleven bullet points in the "professional skills and abilities" section, from "a strong commitment to and record of raising student achievement for all students" to "ability to create collaboration and community involvement") but barely manages to find anything sellable about the district itself. An opening with Atlanta Public Schools, hosted by the same recruiting company, at least throws out there that they've been "educating some of Atlanta's most notable citizens" for more than a hundred years, but that's subtle compared to the pitch made by the El Paso Independent School District, which ended its application process on the same day as TUSD. Sure, in El Paso, they've also been educating "future generations," etc., etc. Plus they've got a whole list of successes already in progress:
The district offers a variety of instructional programs including Magnet programs for the academically advanced, career and technical education for those who are interested in exploring different professions, a two-way dual language strives to achieve high academic excellence and dual language proficiency, and special education programs for those with specific needs in regard to education.
Sure, there are certainly great things happening in TUSD, even beyond University High, or at least, I'd have to imagine so. During his press conference back in March ("John Pedicone: 'The Community Needs to Get Behind This District,'" The Range, March 20), John Pedicone accused the community of creating a negative perception of the district, saying that we collectively need to "stop making it kind of cool to make TUSD fail." But you know what, if the district can't come up with a sales-pitch to convince a relatively small pool of potential hires to want to come here, maybe the problem isn't the ill-will of a grumpy citizenry.
Frankly, I think I've earned the right to be dissatisfied with the service I've received from the district. My son just finished the sixth grade at a midtown school, and after a rough few years plagued by bullying issues in elementary school, this year has generally been a positive experience. Good teachers, a pro-active principal and a school that actually surprised me with the number of arts programs offered. Note the past tense used there: due to an apparent miscalculation, most of the arts classes are gone next year. Also gone? One of the two P.E. teachers, the librarian and one of the school's counselors. Also, the principal is leaving for a career outside of education, which possibly isn't TUSD's fault, I suppose. But if I were him and heard all about all these cutbacks, including the idea that he'd have one counselor for 750 students, I imagine I'd be looking for another line of work as well. Conveniently, all of these cuts were announced after the deadline for open enrollment at most of the area's other districts. So while the principal had time to get out, parents weren't afforded that same opportunity.
Somehow the response to the threat of charter schools and access to tax-based scholarships for private institutions is just to keep cutting. However, when these cuts send another round of students to TUSD's competitors, what will be left to eliminate?
Surely, it's more complicated than just blaming uninspired, possibly incompetent leadership at TUSD, considering the Legislature's more-or-less open war on public education in recent years, but what's the solution other than to run for the hills, like Pedicone chose to do? I love the positive things happening in Tucson as much as anyone, but a hundred James Beard award winning chefs opening restaurants downtown won't make up for a woefully-inadequate set of schools within the city's largest district.
Hopefully, the candidates for superintendent don't have school-age kids, because between the schools here and the district's underwhelming sales pitch, it might be tough finding anyone willing to break the recent two-years-or-less trend as far as tenure in the job goes.