Monday, November 23, 2015

Recent TUSD Decisions: The Good, the Bad and the Arrogant

Posted By on Mon, Nov 23, 2015 at 1:52 PM

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I've been off for the past few weeks, but the world of education decided to continue turning in my absence, and TUSD is no exception. So here's a quick catch-up on TUSD-related events and decisions: The Good, the Bad and the Arrogant.

TUSD decided to rework its student code of conduct. It's a good idea, especially if, as Superintendent Sanchez said, “The student code of conduct as it exists now is templated off of the penal code and speaks to student disciplinary actions as a law enforcement officer would." That's school-to-prison pipeline territory, and it needs to change. Helping students has to take priority over punishing them. Hiring consultant Jim Freeman looks like a good move, especially if he's as capable and experienced as his resume suggests. He should bring a wide variety of possible approaches with him, which he can mix and match to create a disciplinary policy best suited to TUSD students. I don't see how the district, or any district, has enough in-house knowledge and expertise to do the job itself. If Freeman comes through with an improved new disciplinary policy, it will be $35,000 well spent. [Note: a just-published study on suspensions in California schools maintains that lowering district suspension rates correlates with higher district achievement.]

The approval of a plan to change the student makeup of five schools, mainly adding middle school grades, is a mixed bag. The big question is how the move will impact the district's desegregation status, which is why it has to be approved by the courts before it's put into action. Overall, the plan is a good idea if it's anywhere from neutral to moderately positive in its effect of the district's racial and ethnic mix. As central as the deseg plan is to nearly every important decision TUSD makes, a district's mission is to provide the best education possible for its students, and if the changes increase the quality of education for the students attending those schools—and if it also encourages some parents to leave their children in TUSD rather than fleeing to charters or neighboring districts—those are good things regardless of whether they further the deseg cause. It's worth noting that the board was unanimous in its approval of all the changes except for the plans at Sabino High, which were opposed by Michael Hicks and Mark Stegeman. We haven't seen lots of unanimous board votes on important issues lately.

The controversies over TUSD's magnet schools, which haven't succeeding at their deseg missions, have moved in a positive direction with an agreement between the district and some of the plaintiffs in the deseg lawsuit. More money will be flowing to the magnet schools, recruiting efforts outside of the schools' neighborhoods are supposed to be stepped up, and permanent teachers are supposed to take over the classrooms which have been taught by long term substitutes. But the longstanding problems with the magnet schools, some of which will be addressed, show that the district has dropped the ball for years. And even with the positive changes, Sanchez, the board majority and their supporters in the magnet school communities continue to partake in mind-boggling doublespeak when they say the schools should be able to keep their deseg funding even if they continue to have Hispanic student populations far above the 70% maximum required by the court-ordered deseg plans. Magnet schools are called "magnets" because their unique programs are supposed to draw a wider variety of students from beyond the neighborhood. Any school that doesn't succeed at that is a failed "magnet" school, even if its program is a success with the students who attend. Call it a "specialty" school if you want, but not a "magnet." The district and parents have every right to believe a "specialty" school which enriches the educations of neighborhood students is a terrific idea, that it doesn't need to have a diverse student population to be valuable for its students, but they lose the right to call it a "magnet" school worthy of deseg funding if it doesn't try to attract students from outside the neighborhood and isn't interested in desegregation.

Finally, the addition of people to the district's Audit Committee who have family members working for the district is an unnecessary, unforced error that harms the district's credibility and reinforces Sanchez's reputation for arrogance—which, unfortunately, is a reputation he has earned through some of his behavior and actions. The Audit Committee has been a source of contention in the district for some time. Back in April, two of its members were kicked off because they live out of district, a move that was viewed by some as an attempt to defang the committee—and they were almost certainly right. With that background, new appointments to the committee should have been done with an eye to keeping them squeaky clean and independent. Instead, people with connections to the district filled the empty slots, which looks a whole lot like stacking the committee with friendly members. And Sanchez's justification for the move, saying connections with the district won't make their decisions less independent, is absurd. Any votes they make about possible financial improprieties which favor the district would automatically seem tainted. Last week, two of the new members left the committee, which was the right thing to do. They shouldn't have been there in the first place.

(A note to Sanchez haters: If the last two items have you crowing that I've joined your ranks, that I've finally seen the light and realize that Sanchez is a terrible superintendent, you should stop crowing. I see weaknesses in him, as I do in all leaders—and in all human beings—but pointing out his flaws doesn't amount to a general condemnation of him or his tenure as superintendent. I believe he has done, and continues to do, a reasonably good job. My concern is that his tendency to be arrogant, to always want to be right, to always want to be the smartest guy in the room, lowers his effectiveness as superintendent, especially in a place like Tucson which painted a bullseye on TUSD long ago and is always looking for problems to spotlight. A bit more humility from Sanchez would go a long way. He should be more willing to admit when he's made a wrong decision and more willing to share credit with others, even (especially) people he is at odds with. I'm aware that arrogance is a common trait shared by people who seek to put themselves in positions of power. It's part of why they think they deserve to be in such lofty positions. But as a fellow English teacher, Sanchez, I'm sure, is well acquainted with the bad things that happen to people in Greek tragedies who are burdened with an overabundance of hubris. The Old Testament backs up the ancient Greeks on that count. As it says in Proverbs, Pride goeth before the fall. Sanchez should take both admonitions to heart.)

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