Leila Counts is the newest member of the TUSD Governing Board.
In recent years, the five member board has generally divided into two camps, voting 3-2 on contentious issues. The majority has shifted back and forth from election to election.
Prior to Counts’ election, Michael Hicks, whom she replaced, tended to vote with Mark Stegeman and Rachel Sedgwick. Many people expected Counts to ally herself firmly with Adelita Grijalva and Kristel Foster. However, her first vote on the board concerned how long the president's term should be, and Counts voted along with Stegeman and Sedgwick to create two half year terms with Stegeman serving the first term, rather than having one person lead the board for the entire year. Her decision upset many educational progressives who felt betrayed by her vote.
I interviewed Ms. Counts recently. Here is our conversation, edited for clarity.
As I stated when this thing first exploded, I was put in a very hard position. What I heard from thousands of voters when I knocked on 20,000 doors over the summer was, number one, fix our schools, and number two, fix the dysfunction on the board. Everybody is sick and tired of the fighting. Everyone is ashamed of the behavior on that board.
As a parent, I would watch those board meetings and was appalled by the divisiveness and very unprofessional behavior. That was a large reason why I decided to run.
Keeping the practice of six month terms for the president and clerk is not ideal, but it shows we are willing to share power, that this board does not belong to one side or the other. It belongs to the people. We are a public board, and we are going to work together for our students and our community.
In hindsight I would do the same thing. I’ve become the balancer and referee sometimes. It’s not a position I like, but I’m OK with taking on that responsibility, because it’s needed. We need to work together if we hope to get anything done.
Mark Stegeman served the first half year term as president, then the office transferred to Adelita Grijalva. Was it a good transition?
Yes, it happened very smoothly. I nominated Adelita, and she accepted the nomination. I’m happy she’s our president now.
What do you see as your role on the board?
I think I bring balance. I really try to come at our issues with a balance of my head and my heart and look at things objectively, then try to make the best decisions I can independently.
What are some of the most important votes which have happened during your 7 month tenure?
The decision to hire an internal auditor was a big vote. We’re hearing from the public that they want transparency and accountability when it comes to our budget in TUSD. We have a lot of room to grow in that area.
Standing up for Native American students was another big vote. Hanging the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O’Odham flags [in the Board room] and allowing Native American students to wear their traditional regalia for graduation ceremonies really showed our values as a board and a district and our respect for our students, for the different cultures that are part of the TUSD community. It was a huge area for moral growth and inclusion.
The third vote would be the budget. The budget negotiation was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, because there was so much I wanted to accomplish that we really didn’t have the funds for, but I’m proud we brought teachers above $40,000 as a starting salary. That was a huge improvement. It shows respect, it values the profession of teaching. Our educators, our social workers, everybody got a $1,500 raise. I’m very proud of that.
What about the vote on the new Family Life curriculum?
We’re still in process with that. We have to hold two public hearings, which we’re going to be doing this month.
Do you think the board is united on the Family Life curriculum?
It’s hard to tell. I know Kristel Foster, Adelita Grijalva and myself said that we support the curriculum revision our board-appointed committee has given to us and we’ve publicly stated that. I don’t think Mark Stegeman or Rachel Sedgwick have made any statements, so it’s hard to say. In a lot of areas, especially socially, our board has similar beliefs and it could definitely be united on this. I hope so.
What are some of the concerns you have for the district?
Being 49th in per pupil funding in the country, we can’t get around that. As I said about the budget, it was one of the hardest things I’ve had to do to make those decisions. We have a starved district, we have starving schools, I can’t shy away from that reality.
Capital funding isn’t exciting or sexy, but — this was a shocking fact to me. In HVAC [Heating, Ventilation, Air Conditioning] alone, TUSD has $250 million in deferred maintenance. We’re not talking about plumbing, we’re not talking about electrical, we’re talking just about air conditioning and heating, $250 million in deferred maintenance. We are patching up old, rundown equipment that keeps our students healthy, well and safe, cool in the summer and warm enough in the winter so they can learn. If we can get the state funding we need for this old, historical district to fix these buildings so our students are safe, that would be a huge accomplishment for me.
As I said in my campaign, I would like to see a lower teacher/student ratio, and higher educator salaries to retain and bring in great educators who will really mold our kids and have the positive effects that great teachers can have.
Our funding means the progress we can make is extremely limited, although I think we’re doing a good job of it, we are improving in a lot of ways. For instance, with enrollment, just over the summer having our schools open for summertime enrollment, we had 10,000 families enroll their students. We’re making gains when it comes to some big, systemic problems the district has been facing for many years.
I support the educators and parents and community members who marched for RedforEd, I think we need to do it again. It’s not acceptable that we’re 49th in per pupil spending. We’re not going to get the change our students deserve and that we need in order to make big progress in our schools.
Do you see problems in the district concerning discipline?
We did a lot of work last year. We rebuilt the student code of conduct based on restorative practices. We provided trainings and we continue to provide high quality training and support for the educators at our schools to implement it correctly. The teacher surveys that came back on that were overwhelmingly supportive of how things are going as far as discipline in our district, and the parent surveys were overwhelmingly positive.
Can you give a short definition of “restorative practices”?
It’s hard to describe in a nutshell. To me, restorative practices can be summed up as student responsibility and accountability for their behavior. Instead of suspension or expulsion or pushing students away from the school community, it is bringing them in by helping them take responsibility for their actions and behavior. It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of support. It’s an ongoing process. Every year we need professional development around it. We can’t just put it on the back burner. This is about lives and personalities and social dynamics that come to us every year. We have to continue to support it.
Are there disagreements about student discipline among board members?
I think we did a phenomenally good job of coming together on the discipline issue, I was pleasantly surprised, but there are still fundamental differences of opinion on restorative practices, how discipline should be implemented in our schools. We came to a good middle ground that the parents and teachers are obviously happy with.
What are some other issues where board members disagree?
I think often times there’s conflict in the speed at which progress is made. I myself am a person who likes to get things done quickly and have fast change, fast progress, but I understand that sometimes lasting change is slow change. I’ve had to accept that truth and work with it.
The funny thing is, I’m the swing vote on the speed in which things are implemented as well. Sometimes my nature takes over and I just want it done fast, and other times I understand the necessity of having a slower progress.
Are you glad you made the decision to be on the school board?
A lot of people ask me if I’m happy doing this unpaid, volunteer work for a historically dysfunctional and contentious board. Although it is very difficult work, it is so rewarding. As an advocate for children, families and educators for the past 20 years, it is fulfilling to actually make and see the progress that can get done to help the district's children and families.