Political Realities

Power will play an enormous role in the TUSD school-closure vote and its aftermath, regardless of the decision

People looking at the embattled Tucson Unified School District could focus on its $20 million deficit or the loss of 5,000 students within the last 10 years as keys to the mess it finds itself in right now.

However, people could just as easily look at politics--politics in the state Legislature, and locally, the political repercussions that could result from the scheduled April 15 vote on the school-closure proposal. On April 8, the board will vote on other cost-saving measures, such as asking schools to choose between librarians and counselors.

The proposal--brought to the board in February by Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer--would close Corbett, Rogers, Wrightstown and Ochoa elementary schools.

This discussion about politics troubles TUSD Board President Alex Rodriguez. He says he's especially troubled by references in past newspaper coverage that describe this issue as all about politics.

But the events just before a March 18 public hearing at Ochoa Elementary School, in the heart of South Tucson, were, in fact, all about politics.

A rally was called to order by retired Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, who was flanked by his daughter, South Tucson Mayor Jennifer Eckstrom, and protégé/county Supervisor Ramón Valadez, who was toting his young son Daniel on his shoulders. Also in the group: state Rep. Linda Lopez and Tucson City Councilman Steve Leal.

The politicos were surrounded by almost 600 parents, children and community members on the school steps, wearing "Save Ochoa School" T-shirts and "I Vote" buttons--a reminder to voter-fearing politicians and school-board members that, yes, school closures have political consequences.

Dan Eckstrom joked with the crowd, speaking in half-Spanish and half-English that he came out of retirement to fight for Ochoa. The crowd, holding signs like "Ochoa Por Vida!" and "Our School Is the Heart of Our Neighborhood," cheered him on. The reach into the community even brought out Father Fernando Pinto of the Santa Cruz Church to do a blessing in the midst of Easter Holy Week.

"It's very wise to call upon divine intervention, always, anytime," Pinto said.

After giving each politician a moment to speak, Dan Eckstrom shouted into the microphone: "Tonight, we need to fight. ... We need to be loud. ... Go in there, and tell them how you feel. Don't be afraid."

Then Eckstrom directed the crowd to form a human chain around the main school building before heading in for the hearing.

If the mariachi music, the words from Brian Flagg of Casa Maria or the entire crowd singing "De Colores" in unison didn't move Pfeuffer and the board members to change their minds, it certainly should have provided Rodriguez with evidence that this is, indeed, all about politics.

If he and his fellow board members vote to close the schools, it's a vote people in South Tucson will likely never forget.

Ann-Eve Pedersen points to Seattle as one example of the politics involved in closing schools--especially when done in a way that does not include substantial community input. About 12 years ago, a Seattle school district didn't involve the community in a public process to close schools. In the aftermath, school board members were recalled, and the superintendent resigned.

Pedersen has a first-grader at Sam Hughes Elementary School, a school not on the closure list that's located in a neighborhood very different than Ochoa's neighborhood. Pedersen, however, found herself motivated when Pfeuffer asked schools to decide between keeping librarians or counselors on staff--another cost-cutting measure.

Pedersen says that and the school-closure proposal were enough to wake parents up, something she wishes had happened before Arizona lawmakers supported the creation of charter schools 14 years ago. The vote allowed the state to allocate $4,000 per year to charter schools for each student.

The support of charter schools makes Pedersen and others wonder: Are the charter schools and the resulting lower TUSD enrollment one reason that the district is in financial chaos? If so, why didn't TUSD officials make the necessary changes to compete as charter schools began to proliferate?

"Charter schools are now a thriving industry. They even have their own lobbyist," Pedersen says. "If parents cared enough about public schools to begin with, this would also be a different story."

Pedersen points to her alma mater Mansfield Middle School, off Sixth Street near the UA. Pedersen says many of her neighbors today think of Mansfield as substandard, and instead send their kids to the BASIS Charter School.

"Three generations of my family have gone to school at Mansfield. If those parents who sent their kids to BASIS were down there at Mansfield working to make it better and what they want, then enrollment wouldn't be an issue," she says.

Pedersen and other concerned parents have formed a group called Tucson Unified School Supporters (TUSS). The group has attended every school-board meeting since the school-closure announcement, has held meetings with all of the schools on the closure list, and has met with district officials and each school board member.

On April 8 and April 15, Pedersen says, she hopes the board votes to wait and study other ways to shave the millions Pfeuffer says he needs to cut.

If TUSD officials took the time to study school closures in a public manner, Pedersen says, officials may be better able to answer questions parents have, like: Should TUSD close high-performing schools such as Rogers and Wrightstown? Should TUSD close schools in neighborhoods where schools are an important part of neighborhood security and economic growth, like Ochoa and Corbett?

Rogers, an eastside school south of Park Place Mall, is a highly performing school with a well-recognized Parent and Child Education (PACE) preschool, as well as an autism program that serves 21 students and a preschool program for students with development disabilities.

Wrightstown is also a highly performing school with a Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) program, and, like Rogers, it has high-parent involvement, but an enrollment less than 300. TUSD would like school enrollment up, which means getting those numbers at 300 or higher. Wrightstown's other problem: It's surrounded by four charter schools.

Pedersen says her group is interested in talking to city officials regarding the possibility of changing zoning regulations to require charter schools to be located more than a mile away from existing public schools. Another possibility: TUSD could change school boundaries to redistribute existing school populations to help with low enrollment.

"These are just some of the things the district needs to look at before closing schools," Pedersen says.

The other two schools on the list are Corbett and Ochoa. Both schools have scores that have increased year after year; Corbett is now ranked as "performing" by the state, while Ochoa is still ranked as underperforming.

Corbett has a well-respected arts program and a much-loved library, while Ochoa has its own PACE preschool program. Its close proximity to the John Valenzuela Youth Center has created a unique relationship between the school and neighborhood residents.

The debate over performing and underperforming schools is at the heart of what Jay Kirch wants to discuss with Alex Rodriguez during a tour of Rogers Elementary.

Kirch, a Rogers parent and site-council representative, joined other parents in a Tucson Weekly interview with Rodriguez, asking him why the district still can't provide him with the enrollment formula to better understand what is considered "low enrollment." Kirch also doesn't understand why highly performing schools like Rogers are on the short list.

"I question the selection process itself. Four schools end up on the short list, and Rogers doesn't even meet TUSD's own criteria (for closure). ... Why did my school end up on the short list?" Kirch asks.

While Rodriguez is able to offer Kirch his perspective, he is unable to explain the enrollment formula or the selection process. He tells the parents in the room that he has questions, too, and that is why he is touring each school on the list and meeting with parents.

Kirch tells Rodriguez he and other parents are tired of feeling their questions are going unanswered. He feels the district isn't being public enough about the closure process.

"Everyone is going to be fighting for their school, but I have data behind my school," Kirch tells Rodriguez. "I understand you have fiduciary responsibilities, but you have to look at fiduciary implications with this school as well: 75 percent of this school's parents will pull their students out (of TUSD schools) if the district closes it. That may not have an impact right away, but it will the next year as the district feels the effects of enrollment whittling away."

Kirch says he has already enrolled his daughter in a nearby charter school, just in case the closure happens, but he's quick to note that he doesn't want her to leave Rogers, and he plans to fight for her school.

Rodriguez tells the small group of parents in the Rogers library--Principal Cricket Gallegos is also present--that he understands their concerns, but in the end, he has to think of all of the schools in the district and its students.

"We have a budget problem that is very significant and places at risk the future of the school district, and my approach to serving on the board is that you have to put things on the table to evaluate carefully what to do, so you don't make decisions that impact the classroom," he said. "... We are being bludgeoned at the state level. The lack of support for public schools in Arizona is not only a shame; it is a crime, from my view."

Rodriguez says he is frustrated by the perception that he is part of "a big, bad school board crying wolf again on the budget," when per-capita spending on students has decreased, and the budget really is in trouble.

"So, put the school board on the piñata, and take swings, but the school board also has a legal obligation with the money it has allocated. That is why I am so frustrated serving on the school board. If you want to play politics (and claim) that I want to close schools, if you want to play politics that I want to cut librarians or not have counselors for kids, then you are just playing politics," Rodriguez says.

Beyond the debate and worry, he says he remains excited about the future of the district, in part due to the hire of Elizabeth Celania-Fagen as the incoming superintendent, and in part because of parents like Kirch.

"(Kirch) is sitting here with us today, and he's not going away anytime soon. The big question on the table is: 'Aren't we damned if we do, and damned if we don't?'" Rodriguez says. "Too bad Roger (Pfeuffer) got ahead of the community. It was a strategic error. Too bad we are in this situation that we are sitting here talking about what we cut rather than what we enhance, but these are the facts, and this is the reality."

Rodriguez, who voted to move to close the schools in February, says he can't say how he will vote on April 8 and April 15. He also refuses to discuss whether he plans to run for re-election to a second term on the school board. And Rodriguez refuses to elaborate on what political fallout he could suffer from; remember, Rodriguez showed political aspirations when he ran for Congress two years ago, losing in the Democratic primary to Gabrielle Giffords.

If he wants support from Eckstrom Democrats in South Tucson--who are known for getting out the vote--he and his fellow board members may need to consider the dangers of school closures.

People like Maria Jones and her family are counting on it. Jones told the board she recently got a call from the TUSD Welcome Center, informing her that because Ochoa was closing, she could take advantage of open enrollment and put her son in any TUSD school.

Jones said she was shocked and informed the caller that it was odd to be getting the call, since the district hadn't officially voted to close the schools yet.

"I hope this doesn't mean you already know how you will vote, and we are here for no reason," Jones said.

Then Jones said she also received a letter dated March 3 that confirmed her child would be going to Ochoa, asking her to sign and return the form to TUSD. Jones presented signed copies of the form to the board.

"Therefore this is a written contract that I have accepted, and my child will attend Ochoa the next school year. I expect you to honor this letter of commitment."

The packed meeting room went wild.

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