The Heart is in the Classroom 

After losing a City Council bid, Margaret Burkholder focuses on advocating for Pima County teachers and schools

click to enlarge Margaret Burkholder

MarÍa Inés Taracena

Margaret Burkholder

Margaret Burkholder is a talented juggler.

She's a wife, the mother of four daughters, a math teacher at a charter school, the president of the Vail Unified School District board, and now she's running for Pima County Superintendent of Schools—a position that's been held by Linda Arzoumanian for 16 years. Arzoumanian is retiring at the end of this term.

Just four months ago, Burkholder was in the final stages of campaigning for a seat in the Tucson City Council. The self-described moderate Republican ended up losing a chance at Ward 4 to Democratic incumbent Shirley Scott.

"I was asked to run for City Council, and I did. I wasn't successful. It was my desire to run for county superintendent of schools," she says sitting in her classroom at La Paloma Academy. "I know that leadership matters. Definitely, we need good leadership in the City Council, but we also need good leadership in our schools."

She'd been eyeballing this position for years. It felt right this time. Her daughters are older, and life is more stable.

"I have a wonderful father-in-law who really helps ... my husband is great. It takes a village to run my household and my life," she jokes. "I get up and I go, go, go, go, and then I go to bed. That is part of how you get it done."

The Advocacy

"The work that is done in the classroom every day—that is what matters," Burkholder says. "Our community needs to recognize that education is one of the lynch pins for economic development. If we don't have good schools and quality workers what jobs can we expect? Do we think we're going to get companies to come and bring six-figure jobs if there are no people to hire here?"

Once you move into a conversation about teacher salary, her eyes open up, the hand movements become more frequent, and her voice gets louder. It's a touchy subject for Burkholder—an educator with 15 years of experience, a master's degree in education, and Nationally Board Certified in mathematics—who's making a salary in the $30,000-per-year range without much room to grow. Her other fellow teachers, both at charters and in public schools, are in the same boat.

She says one of her colleagues is leaving the charter at the end of the school year. The teacher is moving to another state where her salary will double. There are positions at La Paloma that haven't been filled all year, she adds. Vail Unified, where Burkholder has been a member of the governing board for 12 years, is also losing classroom talent to better opportunities in other fields or out of state.

"I'm a mathematician. I just want average. I want a median income. Do I expect Arizona to have the highest income for all teachers? No. I would love it, of course. But can we go for average?" she says, referring to an article she recently read where Tucson is compared to cities like Portland and Albuquerque. "Our teachers are dead last in terms of pay."

She spends between eight to 10 hours with the kids at her school. The person standing in front of the classroom has a tremendous influence on the students, Burkholder says. Her past plans involved staying at home with her daughters. But she feels the great necessity to be in the classroom and offer guidance. If the state doesn't shine for her students, it won't shine for her children either.

On this Thursday, she's bragging about a student who went from the bottom of the class to the top 10. Burkholder is honest with her seventh and eighth-graders: this is hard. But they all have what it takes to make it, and she's there for them.

"How do you buck the 'I can't' and 'I won't,' and then help them see that they can be successful? My job is to give them that taste of success. It has nothing to do with who's smart...It is [about] who is willing to work for it. It is really about teaching life skills," she says. "I wish every child was loved and cared for as much as I care for my kids. Some of these kids, it is really hard if you're hungry, or you're worried about your safety to worry about five homework problems that the math teacher assigned you. We have to look at the whole child and figure out what is going on with them, and how do we provide them support."

Breaking the Mold

Burkholder, a Sierra Vista native, is all about local control.

Bottom line, Pima County needs a voice in Phoenix—someone who is constantly meeting with the Arizona Board of Education, Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas, and at state Legislature hearings, she says. School districts, teachers, students and parents can't do all the fight alone. They need a leader that helps carry the weight.

"I don't think the current superintendent has used that office to its full extent. [We should] use that position as a bully pulpit," Burkholder says. "There really has to be that connection between that office and the people who elect that office. I think there is lots of room that can grow in that arena."

To Burkholder, public officials at the Phoenix-level are quite detached from the issues affecting Pima County, which makes local positions that much more important.

"Being able to say, 'Listen, who is making these decisions? How do we support teachers, and how do you support schools so that they are successful?'" she says. "Right now, you don't see [Arzoumanian] up in Phoenix advocating for teachers and communities. That is what we need to be doing."

Burkholder could be running against either TUSD educator Dustin Williams, or Michael Gordy, both Democrats.

This is a series of election stories on the Pima County Superintendent of Schools position.

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