Separate but Equal?

Tucson's largest school district is under a federal desegregation order with a plan it helped create, but some advocates wonder if the district isn't interested in change after all

Perhaps the latest politicking over Tucson Unified School District's ongoing desegregation battle is just part of its $300,000 public relations campaign. After all, this is a district that's been in and out of a federal desegregation court order and legal battle going back to 1978. Plus, the former administration spent much of the past few years dealing with a crises over the Mexican-American studies program, a long-term decline in enrollment and financial setbacks from the state's attack on public education, which forced the district to close nine schools at the end of 2012.

Supporters of the desegregation plan say the most recent TUSD legal filings in the case appear to be an attack on the plan itself and the court-appointed desegregation expert and special master overseeing the plan, Willis Hawley. The district joined a U.S. Department of Justice brief and asked the court to remove Hawley and appoint a local magistrate to oversee implementation of the desegregation plan. The request was denied. The district also asked the court to support its own admissions plan for University High School and not the plan proposed by the special master. That request also was rejected.

But even if those fights weren't successful, deseg supporters say part of the district's efforts may have been to sour parts of the community on the plan, in which case the district may have achieved some success.

Over the past few months, the district has held a series of board meetings and community forums on the district's magnet schools, contending that how the desegregation plan addresses magnet schools is essentially a numbers game that focuses on how families identify their children racially or ethnically.

District officials contend that it wasn't the district's fault that it has failed to do the work necessary to integrate schools over the past 15 years or so. They contend the problems lay with a big, bad federal court and its appointed special master telling the community how its schools should be run.

Now, there remains one filing before U.S. District Judge David Bury—a request for more than $2 million in attorney's fees for the plaintiffs' lawyers: Tucson attorney Rubin Salter, who is representing the district's African-American students, and the Mexican America Legal Defense and Education Fund, or MALDEF, which is representing Mexican-American students, and their experts. Although some say it's hypocritical for a civil rights organization to ask for legal fees, supporters of the deseg efforts say that's how such organizations pay for the work they do.

Will TUSD ever change?

When new TUSD superintendent H.T. Sanchez was being considered for the job last June, he talked about his positive experiences helping his Odessa, Texas, school district get through its own desegregation issues: He offered TUSD hope that the culture of the district administration could be changed. Maybe the young superintendent was just the person to make the systemic changes needed to meet the terms of the deseg order. During his first board meetings, Sanchez had positive things to say about the deseg plan and even about Hawley, and Sanchez acknowledged that the district had missed deadlines and was behind schedule in implementing parts of the plan.

But by September, things had changed and the attacks on Hawley increased. Hawley's supporters describe him as a soft-spoken man who strives for collaboration and is one of the leading desegregation experts in the country.

M. Beatriz Arias, a retired ASU curriculum and education professor, works with MALDEF on the TUSD case, and has worked on deseg cases on behalf of Mexican-American students going back to 1978. She worked on cases involving the Los Angeles Unified School District, and was a court-appointed special master for a deseg case in San Jose, Calif., from from 1986 to 2003.

Arias said there's an attitude in TUSD that she never saw in Los Angeles or San Jose, which, like Tucson, have school districts where minority students make up the majority of the district's students. TUSD is about 62 percent Latino.

"In Los Angeles, there was a little more of a respectful attitude toward the judge." Arias told the Tucson Weekly. "The judge said you had to do this, and the district did it and did it in good faith. I don't feel that TUSD has done that, and there are many things that should have been done months ago to get the community ready: meetings and communications to help them better understand the deseg plan."

Arias and others have described this current round of filings from the district as nothing more than politicking by a district that was found guilty in federal court of violating minority students' constitutional rights.

"Can we all see that, please?" Arias asked. "The plan has already been approved. There's no reason for re-litigating."

About 20 years ago, Arias visited TUSD's Davis Bilingual Magnet School and Roskruge Bilingual Magnet Middle School. She said the magnet program was strong then. But she said it's obvious that support for the program has died, and that the district is working to make the deseg plan look like the enemy, and Hawley someone who is not working in the best interests of TUSD and its students.

"That's not true," Arias said. "He is a very well-recognized educator who has done a lot of research."

Deseg plan supporters speculate that if TUSD chooses to continue its legal filings against the plan, Bury may run out of patience and find the district in contempt of the court order. Arias said that she worked with two judges in San Jose, and learned early on that they don't like to be messed with.

"The special master has the federal court behind him. If you notice, Bury has been backing Dr. Hawley at every request and motion," she said. "He's not going to back down. I will predict that the next time around, he will do something to find the district in contempt or out of compliance."

Is separate but equal OK?

Before Betts Putnam Hidalgo ran for the TUSD governing board in 2012, she was an active Borton Magnet School and Holladay Intermediate Magnet School parent and an ardent supporter of Mexican-American studies, often speaking out at TUSD board meetings while wearing a T-shirt with the hand-written message, My kid deserves MAS and so does yours.

Putnam Hidalgo understands why some parents might be troubled by proposed changes that could take place at schools like Davis, which would need more integration to keep its magnet status. Yet she remains an ardent supporter of the deseg plan and, as with Mexican-American studies, believes it is good for everyone, not just Mexican-American or African-American students.

She said the district is "souring the waters" for the entire deseg plan by making the magnet plan a numbers game, because it's just a small part of the overall plan.

"Overall, I like a lot of what Sanchez has done since he came to Tucson. I like his energy and how proactive he is on things," Putnam Hidalgo said. "No matter what, I've given him the benefit of the doubt, maybe more than he deserves because I don't think his approach is malicious. But I don't understand what he gains slowing down the deseg process. But he must gain something or why in the world would he go through this without just doing it, trying it and seeing if it works, and then if it doesn't, let's work together to do what will work," she said.

Putnam Hidalgo says she's developed respect for Sanchez through some of his other work in the district. He's been critical of some standardized testing, something Putnam Hidalgo particularly appreciates. She also likes his willingness to find ways to reduce class sizes and to provide child care for TUSD employees.

"I like his outside-the-box thinking," she said. "There isn't any reason (it) couldn't work with the deseg plan. If not, then I wonder when separate but equal became OK in this district. That wasn't the goal of desegregation."

Putnam Hidalgo said she understands why people want to protect their own kids, but it's important for the district not to give up on the idea of integration.

"That's the beauty of the deseg plan," she said. "There are many ways Sanchez could approach this and I don't understand why he's not out there doing just that and going out to the community to show them what a great plan they have."

She said it's easy to understand why some see TUSD schools functioning as a schools-to-prison pipeline because the disciplinary system is weighted against students of color. "But here is a (desegregation) plan that actually deals with that, and that should be celebrated ... as the most important part of the plan," Putnam Hidalgo said.

One part of the plan she especially likes is an audit of less experienced teachers and principals in the district to see if they need training for working with diverse student populations. Most often those are teachers placed in struggling schools, while those with more experience and certifications are placed in higher-achieving schools.

"I feel like our black and brown kids do not get treated the same as our white kids ... so use the deseg plan to think outside the box. Remove all the barriers and imagine the world you want, and figure out how to get there," she said.

"To make it into a numbers game like this and sour people on the plan, well then maybe (Sanchez) is just a shill for people who don't want to see integration happen."

Divide-and-conquer strategy?

Attorney Rubin Salter has represented African-American students in this deseg case for almost four decades. He signed on to represent Roy and Josie Fisher, the original 1974 plaintiffs in the TUSD desegregation lawsuit, which at first focused on African-Americans.

It was the Fisher plaintiffs who requested that Judge Bury appoint Hawley as the deseg special master and it is the Fisher plaintiffs who continue to be the loudest voices for black students, who make up about 6 percent of the student population. Black students are still the group most likely to face suspensions or be placed in special education classes, and the least likely to be placed in the district's gifted-student program.

So while it seems the district has fought the deseg case every step of the way, not much has improved for the students that Salter represents. Which is why the district's recent filings, and its challenge to attorney fees, is so troubling to him. He notes that the district has paid two law firms to represent its interests in the desegregation case and has a slew of its own experts.

"I thought it was ironic that they are saying, 'If we give the plaintiffs all these attorney's fees, that that money should be going to the kids.' It's a disingenuous argument," he said.

When the district was still working with all the plaintiffs and Hawley to craft the desegregation plan, it was a collaborative effort. Not everyone always agreed but changes were made here and there. Even the appointment of Hawley, whom the Fisher plaintiffs nominated to Judge Bury, was supported by TUSD, Salter said.

Perhaps Sanchez's approach is "a strategy of divide and conquer and play to his political audience," Salter said. "It's a signal to me that they are trying to undermine the agreement we worked on for a year, that they had every opportunity to make contributions and changes to. They want another legal fight? They had their fight and they lost."

Salter said the TUSD board must act within a reasonable time frame, and in good faith, to remove the vestiges of segregation. "But it seems to me, when you say, 'We're gonna fight you on all of this' that you no longer are acting in good faith."

Salter said he has a lot of faith in Bury and thinks the judge sees through the district's strategy. He was pleased that Bury kept Hawley as the special master despite requests by TUSD and the U.S. Department of Justice for a local magistrate.

"When I proposed his name, I just didn't pull it out of a hat," Salter said. "I talked to the leading experts in the country and (Hawley) was always one of the top three people."

He says that that more filings by the district only increase the cost to the district. Meanwhile, "Justice is delayed and justice is denied, and my kids continue to get thrown out of school faster than any other group of students."

Part of the desegregation plan is teaching teachers how to work with diverse populations. "Teachers need to learn a new way of teaching and they need to buy into it. If they can't then they need to get rid of those teachers," Salter said.

MALDEF attorney Nancy Ramirez said this isn't the first time the plaintiffs' attorneys have asked for fees. Fees were awarded when they first won in 1978 and again when they plaintiffs won their appeal in 2012 after the district was found not to have reached unitary status after all.

Ramirez says there's a specific reason attorney's fees are awarded in civil rights cases. It is part of a law passed by Congress that allowed fees to be recovered when civil rights laws are being enforced. Ramirez said that allows private enforcement action against wrongdoers so plaintiffs don't have to rely solely on the Department of Justice, and it keeps people accountable for their actions.

"Most of the time work is being done for many years without pay," Ramirez said. "We don't have paying clients. But when we prevail like we have in this case, then we are entitled to a reimbursement of our costs and time put into the case."

But the most important issue before the court right now, she says, is that the district move forward with the plan and attain unitary status.

"We've been very disappointed by the lack of good faith effort by the current administration. They seem resistant to the special master," Ramirez said. "They are even resistant to filling the position for the Culturally Relevant Curriculum director. We've been asking when that position is going to be filled. Deadlines have not been met and we're very concerned about that. The district is losing time and we want to see this plan get implemented so students can start to see, and we can see, results of academic achievement.

Can white flight be reversed?

Jennifer Roth-Gordon, a UA professor and an expert in race relations, is a parent of two Davis Bilingual Magnet School students. She understands how messy the deseg process has been but she's not sure the special master understands that his current request that schools like Davis work for an integration ratio of 70 percent Latino students and 30 percent Anglo students is realistic.

"We have to understand that today's demographic is more challenging to reach a certain ratio," Roth-Gordon said. "But I believe kids need to learn how to get along with one another."

Her family picked Davis because of its Spanish-immersion classes, its strong social justice program and its emphasis on the performing arts, including mariachi and folklorico programs.

"My greatest concern is that the magnet status is a direct link to the financial resources of the school. TUSD is under a lot of pressure because of the state budget cuts," she said. "White flight is extreme in Tucson and at this point white families are fleeing the district. The numbers from the special master might be the wrong direction."

The number of Anglo students in the district has dropped 40 percent in the past 40 years, she said, and the hemorrhaging continues.

Roth-Gordon says she supports "trying to increase white families in a school like this, but in the end it may not be so feasible."

Although the TUSD administration offices were closed for winter break, TUSD governing board president Adelita Grijalva recently defended Sanchez and the district's latest filings while being interviewed on talk radio. She told host Bill Buckmaster and this reporter that she was excited by what is ahead: an efficiency and curriculum audit, and the start of the district's five-year strategic plan process. The goal is to make the desegregation plan part of the strategic plan, she said.

Sanchez is looking at the district with fresh eyes, and the more he delved into the deseg plan, the more questions he had for the district's lawyers, she said, noting that Sanchez wasn't around for the development of the plan.

Sylvia Campoy, who represents the Mendoza plaintiffs, said every TUSD superintendent since 1978 has failed to bring the district under unitary status. Those who tried didn't have the full support of the board, she said.

She sees a district waiting to implement part of the plan rather than look at the flexibility the plan offers to the district to think out of the box. Instead, it seems like the district wants to focus on pet projects, as evidenced by its recent filing on University High School's admission process.

"The court doesn't say you can pick and choose what you favor most. ... There are timelines, and the timelines are not being met," she said.

Campoy said she experienced "about a week of euphoria" when Sanchez was hired. She said he seemed like someone who would make desegregation his top priority.

But instead, "They will drop $300,000 left and right for a P.R. campaign, and pay their own attorneys to represent the district in the desegregation case, but (then) complain about plaintiffs' attorney's fees? I'm very disappointed," Campoy said. This is the first time the district has taken an approach of hitting deseg by using the fee issue. Their attorneys get paid, but what, the plaintiff's aren't worth it?"

It's interesting to Campoy that although a director for the Culturally Relevant Curriculum program hasn't been hired, the director for advance placement education was hired immediately.

"In the end, nothing has changed," she said.

The arguments she's heard against the deseg plan have also included a lot of "myths," with the district saying the special master used outdated data about student populations. But the data was provided by the district in 2012, she said. She also heard people say that the plan includes forced busing, when it is not part of the plan, or even brought up in discussions about magnet schools. Or ultimately that the plan was written by the special master, when it was negotiated and collaborated on by all plaintiffs, including TUSD, before Judge Bury issued the desegregation order 11 months ago.

"The truth is that for at least the past 15 to 20 years the district didn't work on integrating its magnet schools. If schools like Davis just started to do more integration beginning with kindergarten classes, in two to three years it would demonstrate a significant level of integration," Campoy said.

Instead, TUSD has focused on attacking the integration requirements to which they agreed to 11 months ago, and Campoy said they've also cast blame on the special master, as well as misinformed parents, "and presented desegregation in a very negative light. Meanwhile social justice is not served."

"Maybe part of the problem is that Sanchez doesn't have any of this history. Maybe that's what's needed to drive the process. I don't live in the past, but if it's forgotten, the district will repeat its mistakes."

Campoy said she wonders if what's really going on within TUSD administration is a power struggle with no holds barred. "When a district takes on its chief monitors and tries to villainize them to the general community ... it feels like there is a sinister agenda behind it."

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