Wednesday, October 12, 2016

My Picks for the TUSD School Board: Cam Juarez, Kristel Foster, Betts Putnam-Hidalgo

Posted By on Wed, Oct 12, 2016 at 11:54 AM

Before I discuss my choices for the TUSD board, I want to make it clear that these are my personal picks. The Weekly will make its endorsements sometime in the future, and I have no input in those decisions.

I want to see Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster reelected to the board because I believe TUSD should continue in the direction it is heading, which is mostly positive—though it's clear, of course, that there are areas in need of improvement which they and the district must focus on and address. I want Betts Putnam-Hidalgo to serve on the board because she will be a source of informed, intelligent dissent. Though I often disagree with Betts—not so much in what she wants for the district as the way she wants to go about it—her input will promote valuable discussion of difficult issues, pushing the board to make decisions which will help move the district forward. I agree with all three candidates in their overall beliefs in promoting progressive ideas regarding social and educational issues.

It would be foolish not to recognize that Tucson's school district has areas of weakness, many of them longstanding. Superintendent Sanchez and the three board members who generally support him have made progress in addressing some of the issues facing the district, but there is obviously more that needs to be done. However, these problems are not unique to TUSD, nor can they be fixed easily.

I spend a great deal of time and effort keeping up with what's going on in education across the country. Over and over, I read about districts with glaring problems and passionate, vocal critics. Most of them are in urban centers with large minority populations. That shouldn't be a surprise. The problems facing our urban centers are of a magnitude and complexity you rarely find in other parts of the country, and the problems extend far beyond the realm of education. In that context, it shouldn't be surprising that TUSD, which is in a reasonably large city and serves a majority-minority student population, has its share of challenges and a wide range of critics.

Unfortunately, it's a fact that students in many schools in the nation's urban areas aren't learning as much as we want them to learn, nor are they as studious or well behaved as we wish them to be. It's also a disturbing fact that, more than 60 years after the Supreme Court's Brown v. Board decision which declared state-sponsored school segregation illegal, school segregation in districts across the nation is as bad as or worse than it was in the decade following that landmark decision. These maddening, infuriating problems plague TUSD as they do other school districts. We know the district isn't as strong academically as it should be, and it's clear its schools are far too segregated.

We absolutely must work to improve things in TUSD. But to blame problems which can be found all over the country on a superintendent and the board members who support him, to think that if we "throw the bums out" as some people recommend, we'll end up with a new, improved board that will hire a superintendent who will ride in on a white—make that a multicolored—charger and make everything better is to believe a fantasy, and to indulge in an exercise in futility.

Some people think Superintendent Sanchez is so flawed, he's a detriment to the district. I disagree with those people, but it makes sense that they want to get rid of him and his supporters on the board. There are others who believe Sanchez is a competent superintendent, but they think replacing him and the board members who support him might somehow put TUSD on the fast track to progress, that new leadership would result in the district making great strides in solving intractable problems. To them I say, we've tried that before, multiple times in recent years — a TUSD senior who has been here since kindergarten has seen five superintendents since he or she began school—with little to show for it. I prefer to keep a superintendent like Sanchez who is competent, innovative and energetic and has spent time in the district, someone who can use his skills and experience to move the district in a generally positive direction, rather than digging around in the superintendent-for-hire coal mine one more time hoping to discover a rare—a very rare—diamond, and start all over with someone none of us knows and who doesn't know Tucson, its schools or its students. And I prefer to keep board members who are supportive of his tenure and his policies.

That's why I support the reelection of Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster. I believe the district has taken a number of steps in the right direction over the past four years, and I believe the district will benefit from continuity of leadership. Cam and Kristel are intelligent, caring individuals whose primary goal as board members is to do the best they can for the district's students. They share progressive educational and social principles which embody the kind of education which is best for the children of Tucson and the country. 

Having said that, I hope Cam and Kristel will use the experience they have gained over their four years on the board to act more independently. Critics are correct in saying that the board majority too often functions as a rubber stamp for Sanchez. It is understandable they would have adopted that position when they hired Sanchez. When he arrived in the district, he walked into a political buzzsaw. The district's emotions had been rubbed raw and battle lines had been drawn during the fights over Mexican American Studies, school closures and desegregation. Cam and Kristel, I think, felt the need to protect the man they chose from hostile critics who were gunning for him from his first day on the job. In general, they were right to support Sanchez, but at times — like some of his ill-advised ideas for ways to use deseg funds and negotiations over his salary — they went along with him when they should have been better watchdogs for the district's interests. I hope when they are reelected, Cam and Kristel will listen more closely to the reasonable concerns of critics and place those dissenting voices alongside Sanchez's ideas to help them make the best possible decisions for the district.

Before I discuss my reasons for picking Betts Putnam-Hidalgo, I want to talk about current board member and candidate Mark Stegeman. I believe he is by far the most destructive force on the board and someone who absolutely should be replaced. I supported Mark when he first ran in 2008. I hoped he would use his strengths as an economics professor to help the district straighten out its financial problems. I also hoped he would have enough awareness of his limitations in the areas of K-12 curriculum and other student-related concerns to take a step back and play a quieter role in those areas. Unfortunately, Mark has shown an astounding lack of humility and a dangerous desire to increase his power and influence on the board and in the district. He often acts like he thinks he should be superintendent. His desire to push his agenda and get his way has been a distraction to the district and a major source of irritation for the three superintendents who have headed the district while Mark has served on the board.

Mark's academic specialty in economics is game theory, which is, basically, the study of strategies people can use to help influence decision making. As a board member, Mark sometimes acts like he's playing one of those world domination computer games enjoyed by some high school and college students as well as some adults, where players form alliances of convenience while they plot against and foment dissension among the other players, with the goal of gaining the advantage and dominating the field. Those games can be engrossing and stimulating for people who like that kind of thing, and sometimes skilled game players use those strategies in the business world to climb the corporate ladder, but that kind of behavior has no place on a school board. I would like to see Mark take his games back to his college classroom instead of playing them out at the district's expense.

That leads into the reason I want Betts Putnam-Hidalgo to join the board. Betts has strong disagreements with the board majority and Superintendent Sanchez, which she voices in no uncertain terms. But unlike Mark, who often picks and chooses his stands on issues to suit his quest for influence and power, Betts has a core set of educational beliefs which are grounded in K-12 educational theory and reflect her passionate advocacy for what she believes is best for the children and adolescents who attend district schools.

I've known Betts for a few years. We're both members of an education book group, and I've had a number of one-on-one discussions with her. That has given me an opportunity to know more about her than I would have learned from reading her campaign literature and listening to her in public forums. (As a side note, I've known Mark for a longer time and have spent hours talking about education and TUSD with him as well.) I know Betts to be an honest, straightforward person who says what she means and means what she says. I've never detected any secondary agendas driving her concerns. Though she and I lock horns frequently in educational discussions, I believe we have a similar vision of what an ideal school district should look like. Our primary difference is, she believes that ideal can be realized, and I don't. I worry that, as the saying goes, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Just as there can be a soft bigotry of low expectations, there also can be a tyranny of too-high expectations.

But "realists" like me sometimes shrug our shoulders and aim too low. I admit to being guilty of that on a number of occasions. Someone like Betts whose head is higher in the clouds can push people who say they are grounded in reality to expand their visions and arrive at bold policies which are more successful than more timid approaches. That's the role I believe Betts will play on the board.

I've heard Betts give genuine credit to people she often criticizes when she agrees with things they say and do. I've also seen her take real-world stances which aren't in absolute agreement with her idealized vision of the way the world should be. That says to me that when she is on the board, Betts will be more interested in making the right call on an issue than in involving herself in personal squabbles and board politics. It also tells me she will keep the genuine, immediate needs of the district in mind and try to make the right decision even if it means wavering a bit from her strongly held beliefs.

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