Guest Commentary

By endorsing only two candidates for three seats, leadership at the teachers' union has let down its members

The Tucson Education Association has officially announced which candidates it is endorsing in this year's Tucson Unified School District governing-board race: It has endorsed two candidates, Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster, out of 12 contenders.

The problem is that there are actually three seats up for grabs, not two. Yet the TEA leadership decided it was in the best interest of TUSD teachers, students and parents to only endorse two candidates. Why would the TEA do that?

I came up with a couple of possible explanations. Maybe the other 10 candidates are so terrible, and so against TEA goals and principles, that none were worth supporting. Or perhaps all 10 are so similar, and good enough, that it doesn't really matter who gets that third seat.

But can either conclusion be taken seriously? Some candidates have similar platforms, but there are many high-profile, important issues on which candidate positions contrast profoundly. Some support charter schools, while others fear the loss of collective bargaining if TUSD goes in that direction. Some support Superintendent John Pedicone's leadership; others, not so much. Some are extremely supportive of the former Mexican-American studies program, while several have worked to eliminate it. And so on.

This brings me to yet another possibility, a feasible one, given that it has become a trend of sorts with electoral politics in Tucson. Recently, party and union leadership have taken it upon themselves to decide which candidates are viable, or "electable," enough to support, even during contested primaries. While some may see this as a pragmatic approach—as "cold, hard politics," as one high-level politico explained it to me—others see it as a cynical and dangerous process that only helps to erode local democracy.

I agree with the latter view.

It may have been determined that with the current board makeup, electing these two candidates is all the TEA needs to "count to three,'' as they say. After all, three votes are all you need to set policy favorable to TUSD employees. But do TEA members deserve leadership that works just enough to get by, or do they deserve union leadership that does all it can to support building the best board possible?

The truth is, the TEA leadership is not fully representing its members' interests with this move.

The passing of Judy Burns reminded us that the unexpected happens. One day, the majority of the board will lean one way; the next day, an unexpected appointment may completely change the board's direction. And sometimes, we elect candidates who we think will do right by us, only to be disappointed once they are in office. I would argue that we have built the current supermajority of less-than-capable TUSD board members through similar political neglect, or failed political maneuvers over the years. But that is another story for another time.

At the end of the day, the TEA leadership may indeed succeed in helping elect the two chosen candidates. I have no doubt that the union rank-and-file will step up and do all they can to try to make this happen. I would have supported a different combination of choices that included candidates who have actually been TUSD educators, volunteers or parents of TUSD students, like Betts Putnam-Hidalgo or Menelik Bakari. But while we can debate who the best candidates are among a handful of good prospects, I certainly can't embrace giving up a third seat to the possibility of a bad candidate. That is a real possibility that is only made more real by not also proactively campaigning for a third candidate.

The bottom line is that the TEA leadership has decided that its membership does not deserve the very best governing-board candidates possible. The TEA, in essence, decided not to even try for the very best.

If that third seat is filled by someone less than union-friendly, the TEA membership will have every right to hold the TEA leadership accountable for giving only a two-thirds effort to fulfill their obligation. After all, you kinda get what you kinda work for.

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