Coming and Going

Alex Rodriguez prepares to take Mary Belle McCorkle's place on the TUSD board

The new year brings in only a few new local politicians, as incumbents easily won most of their races in the recent election. One of the fresh faces is youthful Alex Rodriguez, who succeeds retiring Mary Belle McCorkle on the Tucson Unified School District governing board.

Offering practical political advice to her replacement, McCorkle states: "He should remember you can't do anything by yourself. You need a majority, and it is better to have consensus."

Rodriguez says he has learned a lot since the election about the district, which includes more than 60,000 students, 3,700 teachers, 3,600 support personnel and 200 administrators "Without a doubt, the most critical qualification for this job is to be a good listener," he says. At the same time, the business executive at Raytheon adds that he has been pleased to discover a cohesive leadership team among TUSD administrative staff.

At the helm of that team is interim superintendent Roger Pfeuffer, who replaced the controversial Stan Paz earlier this year. Both Rodriguez and McCorkle enthusiastically applaud Pfeuffer's performance, with McCorkle especially exuberant with her praise.

"I'm delighted with him," she says. "He fits the great leader category. He takes responsibility for what happens instead of blaming his associates."

Since Pfeuffer has publicly stated he is not interested in continuing on the job past 2006, McCorkle offers two recommendations to Rodriguez on what qualities to look for in filling the position.

"The flashy one often isn't the best one," she says. "And give local candidates a good shot (at the job)."

While McCorkle and Rodriguez approve of the job Pfeuffer has been doing, Rodriguez says not all students award high grades to the job the district is doing.

He characterizes the response he has heard from students as a "mixed bag." Rodriguez says, "Some of them like and enjoy school, but others want classes that give hands-on experience and vocational education training."

During his campaign, Rodriguez strongly emphasized that something needed to be done about the 8,400 students who live within district boundaries but attend other schools, costing TUSD more than $40 million a year in lost revenue.

"The issue is parent confidence in the district," he says. "Some believe they can get a better education for their children elsewhere."

Before taking a definitive position on how to address this sticky situation, Rodriguez says he wants to see survey results from those who choose not to send their children to TUSD schools.

On another difficult subject, Rodriguez--prior to the election--stressed the need for after-school programs for students having difficulty passing the mandatory AIMS test. Now, he is less certain about what should be done.

"I don't have enough information about what is currently happening," he admits. "I need to look into what (the district) is doing."

Like most Arizona school districts, TUSD has a daunting task ahead of it concerning AIMS. More than two-thirds of its high school sophomores failed to achieve satisfactory scores earlier this year. Under current regulations, if students don't pass the test, they don't graduate.

For her part, McCorkle believes TUSD needs to continue an all-out effort to assist students in passing AIMS. But she also thinks there should be a push at the state level to provide options that would allow other measures than the one-test-fits-all AIMS approach to determine a student's future.

McCorkle and Rodriguez agree that the district will almost certainly seek release from the desegregation court order it has been operating under for decades. Rodriguez calls the move likely, while his predecessor on the board says: "I have a hunch the judge will grant" approval to the change.

The two also concur about the present collection of more than $62 million in property-tax funds to encourage desegregation within the district. Even though the expenditure of some of this money has been blasted by TUSD critics, and the tax levy contributes to high bills for district property owners, especially businesses, both Rodriguez and McCorkle believe the money is essential.

"I'm very concerned about losing that money," Rodriguez says, "because it funds a lot of critical programs that TUSD needs." Pointing out that the funding doesn't disappear just because the desegregation court order might, McCorkle says the tax money is vital to keep programs like district magnet schools operating.

As she leaves TUSD after 12 years of service, McCorkle lists a few setbacks along with some accomplishments.

Her biggest disappointment, she says, was the defeat of the two override measures on the November ballot. While she is happy the district's large capital improvement bond issue was approved by the voters, she regrets that the provision of fine arts programs in elementary schools and having more counselors district-wide won't be possible because of the defeat of the overrides.

On the other hand, as a life-long educator, McCorkle points to the introduction of all-day kindergarten as her proudest moment. "It beneficially impacted the most children," she says, of her time on the board.

Although the relationships have sometimes been rocky, McCorkle also cites the board's ability to work with various union organizations representing employees as a plus, along with the district's literacy program.

Even though McCorkle has been heavily criticized over the years by the Weekly for some of her votes on the TUSD board, Rodriguez has nothing but praise for her. "I won't attempt to fill the big shoes she is leaving," he says.

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