Final Judgment

A federal judge may decide what happens next to TUSD's Mexican-American studies program

When a TV-news reporter asked Raúl Aguirre why the Tucson Unified School District was singled out by those behind the state's anti-ethnic-studies crusade, his reply was a punch line to a cruel joke that threatens millions of dollars in state aid to the district.

Among other things, the ethnic-studies law prohibits public schools in Arizona from teaching courses that promote the overthrow of the U.S. government or resentment toward a race or class of people.

"Has any TUSD student tried to overthrow the U.S.?" Aguirre asked the reporter at the Mexican American Studies Community Advisory Board press conference on Thursday, Jan. 5, held in front of the TUSD administration building.

While reporters laughed, Aguirre added that the attack against TUSD and Mexican-American studies is "all about politics," not education.

The advisory board members, joined by Tucson City Councilwoman Regina Romero and TUSD board member Adelita Grijalva, demanded that the TUSD board appeal state Superintendent John Huppenthal's expected ruling that the classes are illegal. That ruling indeed came from Huppenthal the next day.

According to Huppenthal's order, the district would be punished retroactively, going back to August 2011. In February, $4.9 million would be withheld, with almost $10 million withheld over the remainder of the year.

Huppenthal made his decision to withhold 10 percent of the state's aid to the district following an administrative judge's ruling in December that the TUSD program violated state law. A TUSD vote to appeal would take the case out of an administrative court and move it to Superior Court, where a judge would be asked to prevent Huppenthal from financially penalizing the district.

The Tucson Weekly's press deadline came before the TUSD governing board meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 10. After Huppenthal's Jan. 6 conclusion, the district only had five business days to decide whether to appeal—and people who have watched the matter play out over the last two years almost unanimously expected the board to vote against an appeal.

Last April, students chained themselves to chairs on the dais, preventing a governing-board meeting from starting. At the next meeting, in May, seven people were arrested while speaking out against a resolution written by then-board president Mark Stegeman to change some of the Mexican-American studies classes from requirement-fulfilling classes to electives.

Stegeman has always contended that he supports teaching Mexican-American history in TUSD classrooms. However, during the hearings before the administrative law judge last year, state attorneys asked Stegeman about his personal notes, in which he described the current classes as cult-like, and criticized what is called a "unity clap" at the start of some classes.

At those same hearings, board member Michael Hicks said he felt the classes violated the state law, and he has publicly said the classes should go.

At the most-recent TUSD governing board meeting, on Jan. 3, new board member Alexandre Sugiyama was sworn in to the seat that became open when Judy Burns died last year—and Sugiyama soon helped Stegeman return to the president's chair, a position taken away from Stegeman six months ago when Burns, Grijalva and Miguel Cuevas voted him out in favor of Cuevas.

Hicks nominated Stegeman for the president's seat at the most recent meeting; Hicks, Stegeman and Sugiyama then voted yes, with Grijalva and Cuevas voting no.

"I feel that he didn't effectively run meetings (previously)," Cuevas said about Stegeman during the meeting, before the vote. "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 ... (and) the basics of running a meeting. I won't be able to support this."

Stegeman noted that ethnic-studies issues have not been on recent agendas, 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 discourse civil.

Before Gov. Jan Brewer signed the ethnic studies bill into law in 2010, then-State Superintendent Tom Horne, now the state's attorney general, had been seeking a bill that would ban ethnic-studies classes—with a special eye on TUSD's Mexican-American studies classes. When Gov. Janet Napolitano, who had regularly vetoed such efforts, left to head the Department of Homeland Security, that opened the door for a bill to become law.

Huppenthal first found TUSD out of compliance with the law last summer, ignoring a report from a consultant hired by his office that determined the classes did not violate the law. During the administrative hearing, Huppenthal's attorney and staff members downplayed the consultant's report, painting a picture of a poorly run company with inept contractors.

At the MAS Community Advisory Board press conference, Grijalva told reporters that TUSD needs to keep up the fight and not succumb to a law that is unfair and discriminatory. She also said that people needed to remember that the state "has a history of very poorly written laws."

Barring a surprise during the Tuesday, Jan. 10, TUSD meeting, the only other fight that remains in play for the Mexican-American studies program is the federal lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by Tucson attorney Richard Martinez on behalf of 11 teachers and two students who desire to enroll in the ethnic-studies classes.

At a hearing in late December, U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima heard two arguments—a request from Martinez for an injunction to protect the TUSD program and prevent Huppenthal from withholding state funding, and the state's motion to dismiss Martinez's lawsuit.

When Tashima questioned Martinez, he asked why an injunction was needed when no one knew how Huppenthal would rule. Martinez reminded Tashima about Huppenthal's past findings and his campaign promise of "ending la raza."

Tashima stated he'd rule "as expeditiously as possible."