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Three challengers battle one incumbent for two TUSD board seats

Four candidates with divergent viewpoints are vying for two seats on the Tucson Unified School District governing board.

A two-term incumbent on the five-member board, Adelita Grijalva wants to continue to focus on dropout prevention. (Incumbent Bruce Burke is not running for re-election.) The director of Pima County's teen court, Grijalva, 38, is a TUSD parent and would like to see early-childhood-education programs expanded.

A Tucson Department of Transportation employee, 52-year old Michael Hicks is a product of TUSD schools as well as a parent of a district student.

"I'm one of those who complain about many aspects of TUSD," Hicks explains, "and want to make it the best district it can be."

Miguel Ortega Jr., 43, is an aide to City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich. Back in the 1990s, he says, he worked as a substitute teacher in TUSD. "The district lacks proper leadership to focus on advocacy and needs to change the way it does things," Ortega suggests.

Attorney Armand Salese, 68, was involved years ago with two major lawsuits against TUSD. "I learned you can't change the district through litigation," Salese says, "(so I'm running) in hopes of inducing them to make changes which will be good for education."

Salese thinks the TUSD board plays too much politics; he also says that the effectiveness of teachers and district administrators needs to be evaluated more.

Despite efforts to reverse the trend, TUSD continues to lose students. Its daily attendance has dropped by almost 15 percent since 2006, to a current total of about 50,000.

"The district needs to wake up and ask: Why?" Hicks says, adding that TUSD needs a plan to reverse the decline.

Hicks believes the district should build a rapport with Republican state legislators. "You have to deal with them, since they handle the purse strings," he says.

When it comes to declining enrollment, Ortega comments: "Parents are tired of the district's inconsistencies and don't know what to expect." Plus, the district has a lack of fiscal accountability and isn't "a good ambassador" for those programs that do work well, he says.

Salese believes that "parents aren't stupid," and that those parents understand that TUSD schools aren't performing. "You just can't say you're doing the job," he says.

Grijalva points out that many students leave the district to attend outside middle schools and then return. She also says: "I support each school community identifying what they want (for their school)."

Lower attendance and declining budget dollars have resulted in TUSD closing nine schools this year. Based on financial realities, a decision on whether to shut down more schools will be made in the next few months.

Ortega questions the process that the TUSD board recently used in closing Richey Elementary School. He also says that if future closures are needed, the district should follow "a consistent, inclusive process which isn't politicized."

For his part, Salese says of additional school closures: "They may be inevitable."

While Grijalva acknowledges the district must be prepared to close more schools, she also lashes out at the state government for cuts to education funding.

"We have to do more at the state level," she says, "so they understand what those cuts do. I think it's a veiled attempt to destroy public education."

Hicks believes it is important for the district to consider what it does with the closed schools. He says leasing may be wiser than selling the buildings, since they might be needed again if the district can be "re-energized."

The Arizona Office of the Auditor General annually puts out a report card on school districts in Arizona. Its latest shows that in the last five years, spending in the classroom by TUSD fell from 55 to 53.5 percent of its total budget. In comparison, the current statewide average is 57 percent.

"Those figures are atrocious," Salese says of TUSD classroom spending. "They show that the district's emphasis is not on students, but on the adults. They're a reflection of poor management."

Grijalva says part of the problem is how the state defines "classroom expenditures." She adds that the TUSD board continues to look for ways to streamline district administration.

Hicks believes the district is top-heavy with administrators; meanwhile, teachers are paying for school supplies out of their own pockets. "We need to focus more on the classroom," he comments.

Ortega says of cuts to education spending: "People think things have gone way too far. We need to build on the momentum of Proposition 100 (the temporary state sales-tax increase approved in May)."

Grijalva, who indicates that every TUSD employee group has endorsed her, asks for votes: "I have a passion for education and providing a quality education for each child. ... I'm motivated to have TUSD continue to improve."

Hicks says he'd bring common sense to the district and would not be a rubberstamp for TUSD administrators. Plus, he adds: "I will be accountable and reachable to parents and taxpayers."

Ortega asks for support by saying: "I'll be a visible, independent advocate for working families. I'll govern the way I've campaigned."

Ortega points out the role he's taken in calling—apparently unsuccessfully—for the school board not to hire a superintendent until the new members are seated in January.

Of his candidacy, Salese says: "I'm not a politician trying to get another job. I'm interested only in the kids.

"I figure I can lend some experience and expertise to the board," Salese continues. "Plus, I can let the public know what's going on in TUSD."

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