Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Feeling Good and Civil: Bring it to the TUSD Board Meeting Tonight

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 3:30 PM

  • Mexican American Studies advisory board chair Raul Aguirre speaking at a Jan. 5 press conferecne with other members of the advisory board and community leaders.

This past weekend, thousands of Tucsonans including my family, spent time remembering the victims of the Jan. 8, 2011 shooting and celebrating those who survived, saved the day and the way Tucsonans pulled together.

However, during the memorial event on the UA Mall on Sunday, Jan. 8, while the Tucson Symphony Orchestra performed between speakers, I kept thinking that while it was indeed amazing how we pulled together and talked about taking better care of each other that the reality is we've only pulled together to a certain point.

I also thought this while listening to Calexico perform Crystal Frontier, while crying while watching Gabrielle Giffords lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance and when I joined the hundreds of people around me lifting our little glow sticks into the air— because I was also thinking about tonight's Tucson Unified School District governing board meeting (5 p.m., TUSD administration building, 1010 E. Tenth St.).

Supporters and critics of the district's beleaguered Mexican American Studies (MAS) program expect the governing board to vote on if the district should or shouldn't appeal state Superintendent John Huppenthal's final ruling released Friday, Jan. 6. According to the agenda posted on the TUSD website the board will receive and discuss heaps of legal advice in executive session about the administrative law judge's Dec. 27, 2011 decision and Huppenthal's ruling that both declared the TUSD MAS program illegal.

What's also interesting about the agenda is that it includes the district's ongoing desegregation case, Fisher-Mendoza v. TUSD.

The Range talked to Sylvia Campoy today on if the district will be in violation of a federal desegregation order if it chooses not to appeal and begin making changes to the current MAS program — a program supported in the district's court-approved Post Unitary Status Plan.

Hat tip to Three Sonorans who broke the story over the weekend that the federal court finally appointed the special master who's suppose to watch over the district as it works to be in compliance in order to better serve a student population that's more than 60 percent Latino.

There are two camps of MAS critics. One camp believes that MAS instructors are teaching and preparing students for Aztlán, not realizing it's already here. Look around, folks. Some in this group also believe Mexican-Americans are plotting to start a civil war and get rid of things like the Brady Bunch and English, and make everyone eat only Sonoran hotdogs. Another part of this group includes people who know these are lies, but they are only interested in political fear-mongering.

Then there are others who still struggle with putting themselves out there as supporters. They say they are concerned that MAS works with only a small number of students compared to the thousands of other Latino students who do not take the classes and may be in danger of dropping out. Others have worried about being perceived as not supporting TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone and have gotten knocked around by pro-MAS supporters. Look, if you need an invite to be there, here it is. If you need more reasons to show up, keep reading.

This past weekend we — the entire city — talked about Tucson being a special place that doesn't reflect the rest of the state. That certainly is reflected in TUSD's MAS classes. Here we have a program that has proven — through a study done by an assistant professor at the UA College of Education and again through the independent Cambium audit the state paid more than $100,000 for but rejected — to help students, not just Latinos who have one of the highest drop-out rates in the city and the country. The classes have shown to increase graduation rates, help students perform better in other classes and improve AIMS scores. These classes, and the way they are taught, help students reconnect to their education and school.

Seems like it's time to take some of that civic re-engagement we practiced all weekend and bring it to TUSD and students who support the MAS classes. Rather than feeling that voicing your support of the program could make Pedicone feel that you do not support him, or worrying about making governing board president Mark Stegeman feel bad for not easing tensions in the community by a failed leadership — why not take this approach: This is about local control and autonomy, and not having our community divided by bigots like Huppenthal and state Attorney Tom Horne.

Perhaps you can feel at ease showing up by supporting TUSD in expanding the reach of these classes so more students can take Chicano history and literature, and at the same time get credit for these classes. While we're at it, why not demand that this method of teaching that people like Curtis Acosta have fine-tuned like a good, good wine, be taught to all teachers — a method that begins with love and respect. It obviously works, so how could that possibly hurt?

The other concern I've heard is that there are more problems facing TUSD then ethnic studies — can't this just go away? Well, no, because discrimination can't and shouldn't be ignored. Perhaps we need to bring in the good folks who helped oust Russell Pearce and are now working on ridding Maricopa County of Joe Arpaio. Maybe they can better fill you in on why putting up a fight is better than sitting back and looking for other things to do.

From a personal experience, having a beautiful, wonderful kid in what TUSD ironically calls Exceptional Education (special ed), I know there is a lot of work to do throughout the district. But I also get goosebumps thinking about what some of the incredible Chicano studies teachers could do with the special ed department if they were given the chance. I have a feeling, based on my personal experiences, that beautiful things would happen.

If you need a good reason to show up tonight, boy, I hope I gave it to you right there. But what about the students? Many are now at Pima Community College and the UA, and have been following this bit of drama for years. Some of them helped form UNIDOS with students still enrolled in TUSD schools and even others from Sunnyside High School in the Sunnyside School District. These are the students credited with shutting down a TUSD governing board meeting last April. Continue to ask yourself, rather than make-up stories that adults put the kids up to the task, how many times do we see kids at school board meetings fighting for classes and fighting for their education?

If you still need an invite, let me introduce you to Raul Aguirre, chairman of the MAS community advisory board. The group of business and community leaders held a press conference in front of the TUSD administration building on Thursday, Jan. 5. They demanded that the district reject the administrative hearing judge's ruling and Huppenthal's anticipated ruling the next day. They asked that the TUSD board vote to appeal, and they asked the community to come to the meeting to show its support.

Toward the end of the press conference, a TV news reporter asked Aguirre why Tucson Unified School District was singled-out as part of the state’s anti-ethnic studies crusade. Aguirre began to tell the story about Delores Huerta's visit to Tucson Magnet High School when she announced that Republicans in Arizona hate Latino's based on the growing number of anti-Latino themed legislation making its way out of Phoenix.

Aguirre also reminded reporters that what TUSD and Tucson is experiencing is like a punch line to a cruel joke being played out in a moral battle that is about politics, not education.

“Has any TUSD student tried to overthrow the U.S.?” Aguirre asked, shrugging his shoulders.

Reporters and members of the MAS board laughed.

How most of TUSD’s five-member board will vote isn’t a big mystery to those who’ve watched the controversy unfold the past two years, including the unruly board meetings that have painted a picture of a divided and broken TUSD governing board. While Stegeman has always said he supports teaching Mexican American history in TUSD classrooms, during the administrative hearings, state attorneys asked him about his personal notes in which he described the classes as cultlike, criticizing what some of the classes call a "unity clap" at the start of the class time. At those same hearings, Michael Hicks said he felt the classes violated the state law, and has publicly said the classes have to go.

But the last TUSD governing board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 3 may be a better reflection when new board member Alexandre Sugiyama took his seat and helped Stegeman return to the president's chair, a position taken away from Stegeman six months ago when the late Judy Burns and her fellow governing board members Adelita Grijalva and Miguel Cuevas voted him off and Cuevas was voted president.

Hicks nominated Stegeman. While Grijalva and Cuevas argued and voted against the reappointment, Sugiyama, Hicks and Stegeman voted yes. Stegeman then nominated Hicks as clerk of the board, which was approved by Cuevas, Stegeman, and Sugiyama.

“… I feel that he didn’t effectively run meetings,” Cuevas said about Stegeman before the vote took place. “These last few months things have been significantly calmer. … This time we are coming to is going to be a tumultuous time for the district … He didn’t do a good job of reading the crowd … the basics of running a meeting. I won’t be able to support this.”

Stegeman stood up for himself saying that ethnic studies hasn’t been an agenda item during Cuevas' term, and that the importance put into the role of president “is often exaggerated,” but that the job is about protecting the rights of the public who are in the minority and keeping civil discourse.

After the MAS community advisory board press conference, Aguirre told the Range that the last time his board met with Pedicone was right before Winter break. Now they are working with the superintendent and Councilwoman Regina Romero's office to put together a community meeting on Jan. 22 or 27 at the El Rio Neighborhood Center. A final date and the location will be finalized soon, Aguirre said.

"We are going to do exactly what we did with (Tucson Police Chief) Villasenor," Aguirre said, referring to a community meeting organized to discussed the police presence at the TUSD meeting in early May 2011, as well as accusations of police brutality.

"... at the same time we want to make sure we move forward with what’s going on with Pedicone and the attitude toward the leadership of the district. We want to clarify his role. He continues to say 'I am on your side and I want to do good things, but handcuffed by legislature,' etc."

Aguirre says the board isn't only concerned with Huppenthal's ruling, they are also concerned with the administrative judge's ruling and what happened during the court proceedings. When they look at transcripts, they question the representation provided by attorney's from DeConcini McDonald Yetwin and Lacy, who represent TUSD.

"... Stegeman and Hicks were not properly cross-examined by the defense. Perhaps this is because these are the people who vote on their (legal) contract with TUSD?," Aguirre asked. "There are so many holes."

If the TUSD board votes to not appeal Huppenthal's ruling, does that mean people like Aguirre and others who support MAS are going to disappear? Not likely.

"No we’re not going away," Aguirre said.

However, within the community the MAS board has received a bit of criticism that at times it hasn't fought hard enough for the courses and has been too diplomatic when dealing with Pedicone.

"We feel our role is different. If I was a student at the UA, I’d be at his doorstep. I was reminding people of our history. In 1974 I was a UA student when the bilingual education issue came forward and the superintendent didn’t do anything. We were at the door step protesting. Here we are 30 or so years later. It is different," Aguirre said.

"The people in our advisory counsel are business owners, doctorates, and activists in their own right. I don’t cut (Pedicone) any slack. We come on very strong in our meetings with him. Our members include Isabel Garcia, Richard Elias, Gus Chavez, and myself. We have not been nice, but at times we've been diplomatic. We’re trying to keep the doors open and we don’t want to be accused of being obstinate or not willing to listen."

So, let's see if the TUSD board is willing to do the same thing tonight. On Sunday, after the memorial on the UA Mall, my son and I went out to my car to put on the Ben's Bell's "Keep Tucson Kind" sticker we got at the wonderful Beyond Tucson event at Reid Park on Saturday. Yes, Tucson is wonderful and it's my hometown. I love Tucson. But I felt odd putting that sticker on the back of my car. Yep, Keep Tucson Kind, but let's keep working, because we still in live in a city where that kindness is extended only so far.

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