A Community Divided 

The latest casuality in the battle over TUSD's Mexican-American Studies program: family relationships and friendships

The destruction of friendship—that's the latest byproduct of the fear and racism that has helped dismantle the Tucson Unified School District's Mexican-American studies program.

The program took its last breath on Tuesday, April 10, when TUSD governing-board members voted 3-2 against renewing MAS director Sean Arce's contract. Earlier, talk had surfaced that TUSD administrators had created a new position for a multicultural curriculum director, and that the person in line for the job was Augustine Romero, a former MAS director and the current director of TUSD's Department of Student Equity.

Several former MAS teachers, as well as Tucson attorney Richard Martinez, have expressed dismay that Romero could accept the position for the yet-to-be created program, which is intended to replace MAS and appease the state Department of Education.

Arce, who is on paid leave until his contract expires on June 30 (he's using up his vacation time), sits at Epic Cafe on Fourth Avenue on a recent day, lamenting the demise of his program, which began in 1999. In 2010, HB 2281 became law.

The law, authored by then-state Superintendent of Education Tom Horne, now Arizona's attorney general, specifically targets Tucson's MAS classes and teachers.

When the subject of Romero enters the conversation, Arce says that the current circumstances are difficult in part because he's known Romero for years. At a recent Little League game, Arce and his 10-year-old son saw Romero's son and family, as they often have before. But this time, the conversation that took place was uncomfortable—for everyone.

"It's tough, especially because these are our kids," Arce says.

On April 3, I emailed Romero and asked him to verify that the position had been created, and asked whether he had accepted the job. Romero responded that he hadn't accepted any position, but that he has received lots of support from colleagues and friends in Tucson and across the United States.

"There are a lot of people from all over the country encouraging me to take the position, and a few locals who do not believe I should take the position. At the end (of) the day, my decision will come down to two things: 1) taking care of my family; and 2) what is in the best interest of the children and community we serve," Romero wrote.

A source who asked not to be identified told me that the TUSD governing board discussed Romero's appointment to the new position in a private session. Two members supported Romero; two opposed him; one remained silent on the issue.

Romero said the district sent him a letter regarding the position, but that a vote on contracts would not take place until the next week's meeting—which turned out to be the meeting at which Arce's contract wasn't renewed.

"Mari, it is important to note that I have received many, many more calls from people in the community who want me to take the position, as well as many many people from throughout the country and community who believe that I need to be there to hold the district accountable," Romero wrote in another email.

During a recent phone interview, Romero confirmed that the fallout over his candidacy for the job has been difficult on friendships and family relationships alike.

Romero is a brother-in-law of attorney Martinez, who represents Arce and 10 other MAS teachers in an effort to dismiss the state law. Martinez also represents Arce's daughter, Maya, one of two student-plaintiffs that U.S. District Judge A. Wallace Tashima has allowed to challenge the law's constitutionality.

"He was the best man at my wedding," Romero says of Martinez.

At his office near Cushing Street, Martinez tells me that "it's become obvious that Auggie has been working in secret with the school district on the idea of a multicultural curriculum for a while now."

Romero counters that Martinez is mistaken.

"That's insulting, as well as disheartening," Romero says. "On a personal note, they know that if anything, I have always supported the (MAS) program and the teachers. Always."

Romero says that some MAS supporters are trying to characterize him as a sellout.

"But if anything, my record shows that not only do I support the program, but I have a record of delivering to the community," he says. "Now they say I am in opposition to the teachers. ... But we're all on the same team. They've bought into the oldest trick in the book that makes us turn on each other. We've got to recognize that, and that's my biggest concern—that we're inflicting some of our own pain from the other side on each other. But why cause more harm?"

Judge Tashima must find himself in an interesting position. At the moment, everyone involved in saving the MAS program is waiting for Tashima's ruling on whether the law that forced the dismantling of the program is constitutional.

If he rules in favor of Martinez and his clients, those championing the importance of Chicano literature and history have said the next step is righting the wrongs of the past year. At the top of their list: reinstating the classes; returning the former MAS teachers to those classes; and returning Arce to his position as MAS director.

But those MAS supporters also note that doing those things would require approval from the TUSD board, no matter what Tashima decides. In January, when the board voted to dismantle the program, Adelita Grijalva was the only board member to support MAS. But at the April 10 meeting, at which Arce's contract wasn't renewed, one of the board votes surprised even the most-ardent MAS supporters.

Board president Mark Stegeman voted against renewing Arce's contract, as did Michael Hicks and Miguel Cuevas. Grijalva supported Arce. But the surprise that night was Alexandre Sugiyama's vote in support of Arce. Some MAS backers wonder if he might become a second vote in favor of reinstating MAS.

Sylvia Campoy is a former TUSD teacher, a former school-board member and former director of the city of Tucson's Office of Equal Opportunity Programs. She also represents plaintiffs in the ongoing desegregation case against the district. (See the sidebar on Page 18 for more information.) Campoy says that what troubled her about the April 10 meeting was that 48 people spoke out in support of Arce—and the board essentially ignored them.

Even if Sugiyama were to support reinstating Mexican-American studies, finding that needed third vote will not be easy. Three of the governing-board members are up for election in November: Stegeman, Cuevas and Sugiyama. And there's a recall effort aimed at Hicks that, if successful, would put him up for election as well. Any potential new board members wouldn't start until the beginning of 2013.

So if MAS supporters want the classes reinstated this year, their only hope is Tashima.

"If he rules that the law is unconstitutional ... the door is open to tell the district: 'You used this law as the only reason to get rid of MAS, so now that this reason has evaporated, reinstate the classes,'" Campoy says. "They would be hard-pressed not to do so."

While everyone waits for Tashima, Willis Hawley is working behind the scenes with consultants and community members as special master, a position he was appointed to by U.S. District Judge David Bury, who also may have a say on the future of MAS classes. Bury appointed Hawley to come up with a new desegregation plan for the district.

Campoy says Hawley's plan is due in June, and that it won't be made public until he's submitted it to the court.

For the past month, Campoy says, she and others interested in saving MAS have been having discussions with Hawley about "what will be included in the plan."

Learning "what the community has to say about MAS—that (must) have an impact on how his work is completed," Campoy says. "But until we have a final product, it will be difficult to see how MAS will be integrated into the bigger picture."

Meanwhile, there's an elephant in the room that nobody seems to be addressing: What exactly does a "multicultural curriculum," which Romero may or may not head up, entail?

When I sat down with TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone in January to discuss his first year with the district, he confirmed that the district was looking at a multicultural curriculum. Pedicone said he was talking to staff at the UA College of Education about it. In January, I asked Jeffrey Milem, a professor in the College of Education, about what the curriculum would look like, and said he knew of no one in the college working with Pedicone, but there was interest.

Adelita Grijalva said at a community meeting shortly after the board dismantled MAS in January that she was concerned about what a multicultural curriculum would look like, especially if her fellow board members were part of the development process.

I asked both Grijalva and Romero for interviews on the subject. While Romero discussed his position during a phone interview, Grijalva replied by email and said she wanted to wait before discussing the issue in-depth.

"The more I think about it, I think that perhaps the timing of this article may be a bit off for me," Grijalva wrote.

"I recognize that a few members in the community, many of whom I respect and value their opinion, might feel that Auggie's position is pitting one side against (MAS supporters), but I disagree with that assessment. ... I obviously support MAS and am in favor of all children in our district getting some exposure to multicultural education earlier than when juniors and seniors. I know that the (position of the) current majority of the governing board is one that (a) multicultural (program) will replace MAS and other ethnic studies, but ... that can change with a will of the board."

Campoy says she isn't entirely against a multicultural curriculum. However, Campoy and others worry that the state will only approve watered-down versions of Chicano history, and that the biggest focus will be on culture, like foods, music and folklorico dancing—topics that don't make people feel uncomfortable.

"There really is nothing wrong with (a multicultural curriculum)," Campoy says. "But you can't pretend MAS never existed. MAS is like rib-eye steak, and now we are being offered ground round."

Since the district is moving forward by developing a multicultural curriculum—despite having held no community forums on the subject—is there hope for MAS while everyone waits for Tashima's ruling?

Campoy says yes.

"I have a lot of faith in different elements of what I think is going to resurrect MAS. I have a lot of confidence in our community and in the plaintiffs and them setting the direction in what we need to do—to represent 61 percent of the kids in this district," Campoy says, referring to the percentage of Latino students within TUSD (even though only a small fraction of those students participated in the MAS program).

"What is right on behalf of the kids is also not just MAS—although that is front and center. It is only one element of equal access and equal protection that needs to be manifested and monitored for a period of time. The rhetoric (from TUSD) needs to stop, and action needs to start. For 30-some years, it's been nothing but rhetoric."

Whatever Hawley, the special master for the new desegregation plan, develops will need not only the support of the desegregation-case plaintiffs, but also the support of the community, Campoy says. For that to happen, TUSD officials will need to ensure that all elements of the plan are fully introduced in all areas of the district, from textbook selection to training and professional development, she says.

"There's a lot of talk of having a lot of buy-in from TUSD, but it is much more important to have buy-in from the community. So for those people in TUSD who cannot deliver in good faith, I think their time is up," Campoy says.

While waiting on Tashima, former MAS teachers are being closely monitored by the district and the state.

For example, on April 19, word went out that representatives from the state Department of Education were inspecting former MAS classrooms to make sure all of the textbooks and other teaching aids that were determined to be against the law had been removed. The first classroom inspected that day was that of Chicano literature teacher Curtis Acosta at Tucson High Magnet School.

Acosta says the inspections were done without warning, although teachers knew they were coming. He says two people walked into his classroom one morning while he was in the middle of a lesson. He asked for their business cards, but only one of them complied—John Balentine, the state Department of Education's social studies standards director.

Balentine and the other inspector spent about 10 minutes flipping through books on the shelves and examining posters before leaving.

Acosta says the timing of the inspection was interesting, because it came during AIMS testing—"a time when we least expected it."

When Arce's contract wasn't approved, and the teachers discovered Romero was in discussions with the district about the multicultural position, Acosta says the teachers made plans for a press conference and to write an open letter to the community. The press conference never happened; Acosta says the timing seemed off. Then he threw himself into planning a visit by author Ana Castillo, who has several titles on the list of books banned from the former MAS classrooms.

Castillo wanted to visit Acosta's classroom and invite media to document the visit. Acosta says that Abel Morado, TUSD assistant superintendent for high schools, denied the media request.

TUSD communications director Cara Rene said Castillo was welcome, but the media presence would have been disruptive.

As this issue of the Weekly goes to press, Castillo will be in town meeting students and other Tucsonans at several public events and readings.

Acosta says Castillo's visit has been a good distraction. He also shared the letter written in response to the decision not to renew Arce's contract and to the proposed multicultural curriculum. In it, the teachers describe Arce as innovative, courageous and dynamic.

"It is evident that the removal of Mr. Arce was motivated by TUSD's continued enforcement of ARS 15-112 (formally HB 2281) and compliance with the political agendas of Attorney General Tom Horne and State Superintendent John Huppenthal. Mr. Arce's courage to fight for the educational rights of our students made him a target for retaliation by district leadership and the Hicks majority. There was no credible reason for his removal, as the position of Mexican-American studies director has not been eliminated," they wrote.

Addressing the multicultural curriculum that would replace MAS, the letter says, "Building a new department at the cost of MAS is placating and premature, given that multicultural education and ethnic studies are complementary and in no way mutually exclusive. We know this to be true since it would be difficult to find a department, school or collection of teachers more dedicated to multicultural education than MAS. One only needs to review Superintendent Huppenthal's own audit of our program by the Cambium Group to find our dedication to multicultural education, as well as their recommendation to expand our classes.

"Replacing a program with proven results and significant importance to the community is unethical and can have no other motivation than political convenience."

Pedicone has said that Arce was offered an assistant-principal position within the district, but Arce says the offer came with too many strings, the most restrictive being that his position would need to be approved by the board. Arce does not think the board would have supported him.

Lawyer Martinez, when asked if he thought the community was prepared to step up and support Arce if needed, said, "I think it's one of those issues that are also waiting on Tashima in terms of viable options. Obviously, if we get a favorable ruling, we hope that the whole community will join us in restoring the program—and restoring the teachers and restoring Sean."

Martinez says that while many may not be happy that Romero is interested in the TUSD multicultural position, it is wrong to set up the issue as Romero vs. Arce. What is needed, he says, is to restore the elements that made MAS successful: critical race theory, social justice, academic rigor and a personal interest in seeing to it that students succeed.

"That will be difficult to implement in a multicultural curriculum, a model the district hasn't even presented to the community," Martinez says.

While both sides wait for Tashima's ruling, Arce says he's leaning on his family for support. Watching what has taken place since Horne began attacking MAS in 2006—when labor leader Dolores Huerta criticized Republicans during a talk at Tucson High—has been an educational experience for his children, he says.

"They have a real sense of what community is. They are really politically mature for their ages. They are engaged, and excited about the whole thing, but it is tiring."

Arce says most of his free time these days is spent with his children. "My hope is that when they are older, they will look back at this time and remember it with fondness and (that) they learned something."

More by Mari Herreras

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