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Goodbye, Judy Burns 

A longtime champion for TUSD's teachers and students dies at the age of 63

Judy Burns loved to help people.

That's one of many ways Mariah Burns McFarland describes her mother, a long-time education advocate and Tucson Unified School District governing board member, who died on Thursday, Oct. 27, of a heart attack. She was 63 years old.

"Just know that's where her heart was. She cared about making a difference in this world. She woke up everyday with a goal of making it better for someone. She cared about people. If someone needed something, she was there, and she would listen," McFarland says.

"Her little phone would ring all the time—teachers, parents, kids even. Someone needed her, and needed someone who could speak up for them. She spent hours and hours talking to them, and she was that way with us. If we needed something, she was there. She was never selfish. She never put herself first."

Burns lived for about four decades in Tucson. Before she was elected to the TUSD school board in 2000—after four unsuccessful runs—she was always volunteering at her kids' schools and for anything that involved education and students, McFarland remembers. When her mother finally became a board member, it was simply an extension of the work Judy Burns was already doing, McFarland says.

"To me, the day she got elected isn't the day she got involved in the bigger picture. Since I was in elementary school, she was always involved. Being elected to the board was just when everyone else finally realized she was awesome, and it was an opportunity to give her more of a voice to speak out for what she cared about," McFarland says.

At home, McFarland says, Burns was a mom who loved her daughter and son, John, unconditionally.

"She was the most-supportive person. She was excited, if not more excited than you, if you accomplished something, and even if you didn't (accomplish something), she was just happy," McFarland says, adding through tears that she and her mother had a date for lunch set for this week.

"My brother and I are very different, and she supported us both in our different paths and gave us room to grow and guided us when she needed to. ... She loved to boast about other people's accomplishments. When she was with my brother, she'd tell him how proud she was of me, and when she was with me, she'd tell me how proud she was of him."

McFarland says that Burns' focus was on being a champion for teachers and students, and was never on politics.

"Politics tends to muck things up and make it about opinions and opposing opinions, and in the end, her opinion was only about helping people. She does love people, loves helping people, and she strived to make a difference in other people's lives," McFarland says.

"She's one of the few people I have ever known to just really stand up for what they believe in."

A native of Birmingham, Mich., Burns is also survived by her husband of 33 years, Ben.

When Judy Burns Took a Stand

When a group of students rushed the dais to take over the TUSD governing-board meeting on Tuesday, April 26, the room erupted into chaos.

TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone found himself in a quandary as he talked to security officials and members of the board, wondering if any order could be restored.

Over the next few hours, the students led chants, chained themselves to the board members' chairs and to each other, and read demands to protect the district's Mexican-American studies classes. Toward the end, two young men played guitar and a button box as most of the people in the room clapped and sang along.

In one corner of the room stood Burns. She was near a student, and at one point, both turned to the crowd and raised a fist into the air, smiling broadly.

For the people in Tucson who support programs like Mexican-American studies, that image of Burns endeared her to them even more, cementing her status as a champion of the beleaguered program and its students.

Those who knew Burns say her reaction to what unfolded that night wasn't a surprise. Burns stubbornly and loyally stood up for students and teachers during her years on the governing board.

This past year was difficult for Burns, who dealt with the loss of her mother and brother, but she also celebrated new beginnings when Mariah recently married. On Burns' Facebook page, her profile picture is of Burns reaching up to kiss her daughter on the cheek, while Mariah beams.

Fellow governing board member Adelita Grijalva says that it wasn't until Grijalva had children that she and Burns developed a special connection.

"We've had our differences and disagreements, but there was a side of her I never knew until I got pregnant and had my babies, and saw and understood her role as a mom, and how important that was to her," Grijalva says.

"She talked about them all the time. ... Any time I had a question or needed advice, she always wanted to share, especially stories about her kids. When I had my babies with me, she talked all the time about when her kids were little."

That connection was important to Grijalva. When Grijalva, a nursing mother, needed time during a meeting to attend to her children, it was Burns who made sure that the board took a break.

"I know the loss of her brother and mom was very hard, and she'd share memories with us, especially when she came back from Michigan after being at the family's house. But she was so happy about Mariah's wedding," Grijalva says.

"I am sad. This is a hard time for the district, but I am sad for her family most. Her grandkids won't get to have a grandma like Judy, sharing all her wisdom and being a strong advocate for those babies. ... She really is fiercely loyal to her family."

Burns also extended that loyalty to the teachers and students who motivated her to run for the school board. Grijalva says Burns was determined—and showed that determination doggedly in challenging situations or when the board was facing a difficult decision. She never hid her opinion.

Burns "spoke her mind, and she was always determined to tell you what was on her mind and help you understand why her opinion was the right one," Grijalva says.

Judy Burns the Fighter

That determination is what Dave Devine admired about Burns, and why he respected her work while he wrote about the school district as a contributor to the Tucson Weekly.

Now semi-retired from the Weekly, Devine says that when Burns was elected, she brought her years of experience as a volunteer for and critic of the district to her position, which meant that she had knowledge of the budget that "was unparalleled."

Devine says Burns became an education advocate because of her time as stay-at-home mom. When Devine began writing about the district, her kids were grown, but she still approached the job as a governing board member with an overriding concern for children.

"It also helped that she was open and willing to talk to the press," Devine says.

In 2006, Burns approached Devine with a story about how the district was neglecting to apply for E-Rate funds, which are funds from fees collected on telephone bills. The funds are distributed by the federal government to school districts for technology upgrades and phone and Internet fees.

Burns was concerned that the district was not applying for these funds, which could have brought the district thousands to millions of needed dollars; the relationship that developed between TUSD and a consultant was also troubling. Burns ended up being the lone governing board member to vote against the consultant's plans and vendor bids.

Back then, Burns pushed for a better technology plan, and that determination of hers came through in Devine's story, as well as during the board meetings.

"The voters didn't elect the superintendent or the administrators, but me," she told Devine in his first story in a series on the E-Rate debacle.

Devine says Burns' original concerns about the program and how it was handled by then-Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer were validated when the Arizona Attorney General's Office opened an investigation.

"One thing that shouldn't be missed in this is to understand that there are people who run for elected office and believe in doing the job and are willing to take the punishment; and then there are those who believe their purpose is to support administrative staff," Devine says.

"Burns was the kind of person who ran for office and faced criticism for doing her job, but without (people like her), what we would have is a bureaucracy running our governing board. We are very fortunate we have people like her (who are) willing to get beat up emotionally, as well as financially," Devine says.

"Without Judy and people like her, we'd have elections which are meaningless, and the staff would run the show."

What Happens Now?

Miguel Ortega, who ran unsuccessfully for the TUSD school board last year and plans on applying for the opening created by Burns' death, says it's always been obvious to him that Burns cared most about advocating for students, and it didn't matter whether other board members agreed with her.

Right now, the challenge facing the community is what Ortega describes as "dueling instincts": to mourn; to deal with the governing board position she's left behind; or both.

"Obviously, we need to mourn and focus on Judy as a person and put the politics aside and celebrate her as a mom and daughter," Ortega says.

"At the same time, if you really understand the other aspect and know and appreciate Judy, she was a fighter, and she didn't mince words and fought like hell for the kids. People are already organizing behind the scenes for this appointment; we should be political and fight just as hard for the kids as she would."

Grijalva agrees with Ortega that the issues the board faces right now are critical.

"I wish we were a board that would not have to think about a replacement right now. Without Judy, there will be a lot of 2-2 votes. We're a fairly divided board on a lot of issues. A fifth member is needed," Grijalva says.

Grijalva hopes governing-board members have a voice in the selection process, but the final selection rests with Pima County School Superintendent Linda Arzoumanian.

The Pima County School Superintendent's Office is a body mandated by the Arizona Constitution that is responsible for all special school-district elections and appointments in Pima County schools, including the Pima Community College Board of Governors. Other responsibilities include processing expenditures from all school districts in Pima County, as well as all revenue collections (www.schools.pima.gov).

According to Ricardo Hernandez, the Pima County School Superintendent's Office's chief financial officer, this is the first time during Arzoumanian's 12 years in the job that a replacement process has been needed for TUSD.

"TUSD tends to have a stable board," Hernandez says.

Hernandez says it is still too soon to know how long the process will take. The first step is a sit-down between Pedicone and Arzoumanian to talk about the process and begin a discussion with his board.

Pedicone and the board will be asked to provide recommendations of people to serve on a seven-person advisory committee, and that committee will look at applications that come in and choose three candidates to present to Arzoumanian. She will make the final selection based on those recommendations.

Hernandez says the superintendent's office will put out a public notice when the application is ready, which could happen within the next two weeks. A special election is also an option, but in this case, Hernandez says that Arzoumanian doesn't want to hold one, "mostly because of time and cost. A stand-alone election would have to be entirely paid for by TUSD" and couldn't be held until March 2012.

Individuals interested in the seat will need to fill out a questionnaire that requires detailed answers, and they must have lived in the district for a year before taking office; must be a registered voter; and cannot be a district employee, a spouse of an employee, or have shared a home with a current board member within the last two years.

The advisory committee will interview all candidates who apply before forwarding three recommendations to Arzoumanian. Right now, Hernandez and his staff are trying to come up with a timeline. The office has received calls regarding interest in the application process. Some of those callers are also advocating for a special election.

"Unfortunately, those calls are based on rumors that the appointment is already done," he says.

How much will the community be involved in the selection process? Hernandez says as much as possible—but the advisory-committee meetings are not open to the public, and applications will only be made available through a public-records request.

Finding the Right Applicants

Grijalva says that if she had her way, the new board member would be someone who has already served in or is familiar with the district.

"There are a lot of issues facing the district right now, and we can't afford to have a new board member that is brand-new to being on a board and brand-new to the district," Grijalva says.

"We have so much work. We are in the middle of several lawsuits that have to do with the state, and we need someone who understands where we are. ... A past board member would be a good fit."

Grijalva admits that it is uncomfortable to think about these next steps so soon. People want time to grieve, but she also feels that if Judy were still on the board and dealing with a similar situation, she would be "focused on making sure we could continue the work of the district. We have a board meeting (soon) and there are votes that will be 2-2," Grijalva says.

The work ahead includes budgeting, and the board may face a vote regarding Mexican-American studies. A decision is expected soon from the state's administrative court on whether the district's ethnic-studies classes violate state law. Once that decision is made, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal makes his final decision, the district may need to decide whether to appeal and take the case to civil court.

Ortega tells the Weekly that he is going to "seek that appointment. And I do plan on running again next year as well."

When Ortega ran in 2010, he came in third among four candidates for two available seats, behind Michael Hicks and incumbent Adelita Grijalva. He hopes that his third-place finish and 39,000 votes in 2010 will be considered by Arzoumanian and the advisory committee.

Ortega has been an outspoken supporter of Mexican-American studies and feels this is a historic time for the state and the district.

"The right thing would be to try to come as close as possible to match (Burns') passion and focus. She was not shy about criticizing or questioning the bureaucracy, not shy at all about (discussing) how the budget was being determined and that the funds go to our kids, and not shy about advocating for Mexican-American studies."

Even if he's not selected, Ortega says he hopes those in charge of selecting the new board member don't select a mere placeholder.

"Judy was not a placeholder. It should be someone who makes the board uncomfortable. It should be someone who does not support the status quo."

More by Mari Herreras

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