Fresh Air

Pima County’s superintendent of schools is retiring after 16 years in office; TUSD educator Dustin Williams wants a chance at that seat

It's an unexpectedly warm February afternoon at the UA—Dustin Williams' former college stomping grounds.

He sits in the patio of the Student Union, wearing dark gray slacks, a white polo shirt, a navy blue blazer, and his badge from Mansfeld Middle School, where he teaches math to sixth-graders.

He looks back at when he quit college his freshman year. He had come to the UA straight out of Amphitheater High School. Being in a sea of tens of thousands of students wasn't his thing. Williams also realized a finance degree to then work with his grandfather wasn't going to cut it for his life, either.

"I joined the work force," he says in between sipping an iced tea.

He was a drifter: a gig as an electrician in his father's company turned into real estate, and eventually into the store manager at The Futon Shop in San Francisco. Upon his return to Tucson, he became a car sales man at Jim Click, and later went back to real estate and into the mortgage business. "During all of that, I was lost," he says. "My life didn't have a strong direction. I didn't know what I was doing."

The only constant in his life was coaching girls' softball. And so it clicked.

"I went back to my broker and said, 'I quit, I'm going back to school. I'm going to be a teacher,'" he says.

On this Monday at roughly 4 p.m., he's now a hopeful-soon-to-be public official who wants to replace Pima County Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda Arzoumanian—who is retiring at the end of her fourth term. She's been in that seat since 1999.

Williams wants to revive and put a face to a position too many constituents don't even know exists.

Two others are also after the seat: Margaret Burkholder, a Republican who ran for Tucson City Council's Ward 4 but lost to Democratic incumbent Councilwoman Shirley Scott, and the president of the Vail School District Board, as well as Democrat Michael Gordy.

The number of signatures needed for the candidates to make the ballot will not be released until later this week.

A Veteran in Education, A Rookie in Politics

With a bachelor's degree in education from the UA, one of Williams' first experiences as an up-and-coming teacher was being laid off from a Tucson Unified School District elementary school due to budget cuts. But that summer, Williams was hired to teach fourth-grade at the now-closed Menlo Park Elementary—a Title I school with a mostly Hispanic student body. He fit right in.

"I would join in with the language, their culture and ask questions. The parents were into that," he says. "My AIMS scores were really high, [the] second highest math scores in TUSD for the third grade. In that community, it was amazing. The language barrier didn't matter, they understood what I was trying to teach them."

By the time Williams' wife, Kristi (whom he credits as the person who gave him balance and direction in life), became pregnant with their first boy, Dylan, the couple decided Williams should stay at home with Dylan while Williams got his master's degree and principal certificate.

It was tough to get a principal job at TUSD—budget cut, after budget cut. Williams' plans took a turn when he became the assistant director at a Native American charter school called Ha:san. Even though public education was (and is) his passion, his stay at the Tohono O'odham and Pascua Yaqui preparatory school was life-changing.

"I got to meet these people and this culture which is the most beautiful, unbelievable culture. I had no idea walking into this...that was the take away," he says. "That culture and I bonded extremely well."

A long-term direction there wasn't in his cards, though. There were a lot of things he disagreed with at the administrative level. "My vision was to completely and totally embrace the community and be on the reservation much more than we were," he says.

Still, while Williams held the assistant director position, Ha:san's AIMS scores showed a 30 percent increase in reading and writing and an upward of 8 percent in math.

Right before he said farewell, a group of staff suggested he go big—like Pima County superintendent of schools big.

The Campaign

Instead of focusing in the highly politicized educational issues, such as Common Core—which he does find it to be extremely important—Williams' campaign's foundation is on investing more money in K-12 students and educators, as well as bridging the gap between the county's superintendent position and the community.

That's probably his biggest goal—communicating; getting involved so that constituents know there is someone out there rooting for Pima County's schools, and pulling strings to get Arizona out of the dump-state-of-mind it's in when it comes to the value of education.

Since starting his campaign and signature collection a few months ago, he's already met with several district superintendents in the county. He says he hears a constant demand: they all want the person in that position to just be present.

"If I am elected, in the first four years one of the guarantees...I know I can get into every school district and I can get in every school," he says. "We can make that a priority, physically meeting the teachers, seeing some of the kids on campus, walking the schools, letting them know there is someone in the position that really cares, that I can say first-hand with my eyes, 'I really do understand your seriousness of the air conditioner units not working and the kids sweating to death because I hung out at your school that Tuesday afternoon.'"

Fueling his thirst to bring Arizona from near-dead last in education to the top is the fact that he is the father of two boys—Dylan is 4 and Drey is 2 years old—who will soon enter the education system. He knows it will take a while, but he's hopeful. He believes in change, and he's getting the ball rolling by first having bipartisan conversations with people—state legislators, parents, students, principals, and teachers. That's what keeps him going when he gets off work at 4:30 p.m. and then is off to an event by 6 p.m.

"I have always cared about education, I have always cared about teaching...and then all of the sudden you realize your blood is going into the schools. You don't have that control anymore, you are putting it at the hands of somebody else, [and] you are like, 'Wow! I don't want to be dead last anymore. I am tired of it,'" he says. "Why do we have to settle? Let's have that conversation. Why can't Pima County become the Mecca of education in Arizona? The starting point."

From wanting to host fun teacher-student-parent events at the Pima County Schools Superintendent's Office in the heart of downtown Tucson to bringing American Idol contestants for concerts at the schools—Williams wants to reinstate the color into a position that, he says, for long has been gray.

"At the end of the day, you have your beliefs and nothing is going to shut you down," he says "You have to believe that you can make a difference, you have to believe it in your soul."

This is a series of election stories on the Pima County Superintendent of Schools position.

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