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Shaking Things Up 

Has TUSD turned a corner? Budget-override opponents remain skeptical

The Tucson Unified School District may be a bit like a storeowner who consistently loses customers despite constantly changing his shop's display window, all the while insisting sales are about to improve.

Critics of the district, on the other hand, suggest it is time for TUSD officials to stop changing the display and instead start performing.

Mary Terry Schiltz is a member of BESTTUSD, a group that opposed the recent effort to win voter approval for a district budget override. Proposition 403 was narrowly defeated on Nov. 4.

"A lot of what we're saying," Schiltz says, "is that the district needs to establish better priorities. ...There's a lack of trust because they've set exceedingly poor priorities. The district's top priority should be to provide an equitable and excellent education to every TUSD student. They're not the enemy, but they could do a better job. They need to put more money into the classroom."

On a campaign flier, BESTTUSD showed what budget percentage each of the state's 10 largest school districts spent in the classroom. Based on figures supplied by the Arizona Office of the Auditor General, TUSD is shown as putting in the lowest amount--54 percent, a figure district-backers contest.

New TUSD superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen admits that TUSD officials don't even know what percentage of its budget currently goes into the classroom.

"We're doing our own analysis of that," she says. "We know we're discrepant from some districts, and we want to know why. Our priority is to increase funding in the classroom. ...We're not building cars here. We need to give each living thing what it needs to grow."

Another member of BESTTUSD is Debe Campos-Fleenor. "I think the problem with TUSD is the customer doesn't count. By customer, I mean the children and their parents," she says.

To change that perception of the district, Campos-Fleenor says TUSD officials must start listening to parents when they talk about the needs of their children. She adds that listening to the community is essential.

BESTTUSD member Debbie Niwa is extremely leery of how the district tries to communicate with the public. "They have a lot of community meetings and pretend they're listening to us," she says, "but really don't listen."

Celania-Fagen has been on the job for only a few months, and therefore isn't too familiar with much of the district's tumultuous history. But she does acknowledge that she wants to move away from the traditional top-down method of decision-making.

"We're constantly working to re-culture ourselves," she says during an interview in her modest office. With a copy of the book Leadership Without Easy Answers on her cluttered desk, Celania-Fagen adds, "If we haven't been listening, we're moving toward that."

Judy Burns, a longtime TUSD governing board member, believes TUSD is finally poised to turn things around.

"We need to win back those people who opposed the override," Burns says. "It won't be easy, but we need to make the schools so good that people will want to come back to the district and will then support an override."

Prop 403's narrow defeat followed the rejection of another override measure in 2004.

If the most recent override had been approved, it would have allowed the district to collect and spend an estimated $28 million more annually. These funds would have been used to lower the number of students in some classrooms. They also would have permitted extra money to go toward some teaching specialties and the expansion of the Opening Minds Through the Arts (OMA) program.

The override lost despite an aggressive campaign backing the effort. "The district fortunately has voters who are astute and made a good decision," Schiltz says about the outcome.

According to BESTTUSD leaders, the district's budget currently exceeds $523 million. Of this total, they say, $65 million comes from desegregation funds. "In essence," the group proclaimed on its campaign flier, "this (desegregation money) constitutes an override without voter approval."

Despite the defeat at the polls, a push for another override election is already gaining momentum. For her part, Burns supports another override attempt, possibly in November 2009.

Outgoing school board member Alex Rodriguez believes certain conditions need to be met before another override question goes on the ballot.

"The superintendent must demonstrate results to the community, and TUSD must win back the public trust," Rodriguez suggests. "Once the community starts seeing results, the override will be an easier sell."

Rodriguez points to several recent positive accomplishments for which he believes TUSD received little publicity. These include an improved bond rating, more transparency in how the district does business and the establishment of an independent audit committee.

Rodriguez also notes that both a new finance director and a new business-affairs director have been hired, and that Celania-Fagen is in the process of selecting members of three citizen committees to help her oversee TUSD operations.

"The district has done an awful lot recently to regain the public trust," Rodriguez suggests.

While Burns and others support another override election, the members of BESTTUSD have different ideas.

"The first thing they should do is start tightening up and stop wasting money," Schiltz recommends. "There's no reason to just keep putting more money out there."

Among BESTTUSD's targets to eliminate waste are what the group calls high-dollar consultants, and expensive public-relations programs.

They also say that the average TUSD teacher's salary is considerably higher than that of other Pima County school districts: $47,500, while the average salaries in the Amphitheater and Marana school districts are $4,000 a year less, and $6,000 less in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

Another member of BESTTUSD, Steve Goss, adds a few more items to the list of proposed budget cuts. "They're looking at technology in the classroom," he says of whiteboards and other items, "which probably aren't needed."

Goss also believes the district must alter how it educates children. "They should get back to a more traditional type of curriculum," he says, "instead of experimental programs like OMA."

Celania-Fagen, on the other hand, plans to greatly expand the educational choices offered in TUSD schools.

"It's a Starbucks world," she says, "where you can order things any way you want. ... We need to re-create ourselves to attract students to the district."

Instead of a neighborhood school populated by students living within close proximity, Celania-Fagen has another vision: She is moving TUSD schools toward what she calls a "focus/magnet way of learning."

Implementing this idea would require each TUSD school to answer a simple question posed by the new superintendent: "Why should I send my daughter to this school?" A principal's answer might range from the school being an environmental-education center, to the school being based on an Italian learning philosophy, to the school having a traditional curriculum.

Whatever the response, Celania-Fagen says it will take up to three years to completely move the district toward this educational-choice approach.

In order to sell this package to parents--who already have a wide variety of options for their children, including charter schools--the new superintendent reflects: "We have to do a great job of promoting ourselves."

To assist with that effort, she talks about quadrupling the district's annual marketing budget to $100,000.

"We need to transform our schools into amazing places," Celania-Fagen says.

Convincing parents to send their kids to TUSD schools is an important consideration, since enrollment in the district has declined by 5,000 students this decade, a loss of more than 8 percent. That results in less state money going to the district and raises controversial questions about future school closures.

But Celania-Fagen insists the district is now on much stronger financial footing than it has been in the last four years. The district carried forward as much as $5.5 million into the current budget, she says.

"The district also budgeted for a decrease in enrollment (this fiscal year)," she says, "so we're now on budget and financially stable. We're in a very different place fiscally, and we need to take this opportunity to keep in a strong financial position."

TUSD's current position is certainly a far cry from the seemingly constant budget problems the district found itself in over the past several years. As Schiltz remembers: "Every spring, there seemed to be a big budget crisis."

Those financial problems were just one of a litany of negatives emerging from the district. Others included this spring's school-closure fiasco (See "Misplaced Priorities," March 27), the controversial decision to have some principals cover two schools, and the still-ongoing investigations of the district by the Arizona Attorney General's Office.

To improve the public perception of the district, Burns believes that many things at TUSD need to change. She lists accountability as job No. 1 for the new school board, which will take office in January. (Miguel Cuevas and Mark Stegeman will be taking over for Rodriguez and Joel Ireland, joining incumbents Burns, Adelita Grijalva and Bruce Burke.)

"The board has to hold the superintendent accountable, and the superintendent has to hold district administrators accountable," Burns says.

At the same time, Burns believes new leadership is needed at some schools and in certain top-level district positions. She points out that current administrators were given one-year contracts before Celania-Fagen became superintendent in July, and she hopes those who aren't doing a good job are replaced next year.

"We've done (these efforts) off and on in the past," Burns says of a district makeover, "but never followed through."

Burns, who was often at odds with the previous superintendent, Roger Pfeuffer, and has occasionally tussled with the other four Governing Board members, may also be in a different role come January. Given the changed makeup of the board, she might not only be selected as chair of the elected body, but may also be able to influence TUSD policy more than in the past.

"I expect this to be my last term," says Burns, who was just re-elected to the board without opposition. (Grijalva and Burke have two years left in their four-year terms.) "I hope to accomplish what I originally set out to do: to help make TUSD schools the best they can be, and places where parents want their children to go and where people want to work.

"Every action we take should show it's a new day in TUSD," Burns says of the next school board. "We need to shake things up."

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