Specific Help Wanted

The Tucson High principal search gets a do-over—and some insiders don't buy the district's explanation

The Ben's Bells mosaic mural at Tucson High Magnet School.

Tucson High Magnet School is the largest high school in the Tucson Unified School District—so why is the administration watering down the criteria in the search for the school's next principal?

At the TUSD board meeting on May 8, Tucson High staffer Margaret Chaney asked governing-board members that very question during the call to the audience. Chaney said she and other staff members had recently received an email stating that the search process—which had already gone through the typical channels—was going to start all over again.

"'Since the applicants were not what we were looking for, we will actually lessen or decrease the necessary qualifications for the position for heading the largest high school in the district,'" Chaney said, reading from that district email. "... I'm wondering what possible purpose this can have on my co-workers and my students when we are constantly hearing we must raise standards and raise expectations. How does any leader who does not meet the minimal standards take us to the next level? If local applicants did not suffice, please explain what efforts were made nationally to find someone to fill the void left behind by the honorable Dr. Morado."

Former Tucson High principal Abel Morado left in January to become the director of the district's high schools.

I emailed TUSD spokeswoman Cara Rene and Superintendent John Pedicone regarding the process. Pedicone responded first, saying I'd hear back from Rene with an official answer, and: "I think you will find out that the re-posting was driven by an error made on the first posting that included a requirement that does not exist in the job description. But I will let the answer come to you through Human Resources."

Rene then wrote back that the original job posting indeed "contained an error in the requirements that did not align with the job description. The original posting stated that a minimum requirement included 3 years experience as an assistant principal. The job description calls for experience as an assistant principal as a preferred qualification."

Rene said the job was reposted to "correct the discrepancy and to ensure it aligns with the job description."

On the original posting, three years as an assistant principal or principal is listed as a minimum requirement. In the new posting, three years of teaching experience and five years of experience in a school setting are listed as minimum requirements, while experience as a principal or assistant principal is listed under preferred qualifications.

Several people reacted to the district's decision to start the application process over by calling the Tucson Weekly with their concerns. All of the callers asked that their names not be used in this article.

At the heart of the controversy is something that most folks wouldn't think of as controversial—the Ben's Bells Project, which promotes acts of kindness. The project includes delivering bells to schools to be given to students who pass the "kindness" test.

Ben's Bells was started by Jeannette Maré and Dean Packard as a way to celebrate the life of their son Ben, who died at age 2 after a bout with croup. Bells are distributed throughout the city to remind folks to be kind or to honor folks who have been kind.

Some sources say that a mistake was not made in the posting during the first search. Instead, the administration wanted a specific person for the job—but that person didn't have the three years of experience as a principal or assistant principal. That person, I was told, was Dean Packard, who has been a Tucson High assistant principal for two years.

I emailed Packard last week asking for comment, but hadn't heard back from him as of our press time.

It's no secret that the school district has struggled with image issues over the years, and the perception is that a stronger relationship with Ben's Bells is one way to help fix that—and that putting Packard in Tucson High's top position would be a big help, too.

The sources also said that two of the top three candidates from the original posting (but not Packard, the third member of the top three) were told they were not allowed to reapply. When I asked Rene about that, she wrote back: "No. Not true. Anyone who applied in the initial posting will still have their application considered, unless they notified the district to have their application withdrawn."

When I asked Rene if Packard's work with Ben's Bells, and its potential positive effect on the district's image, was one reason the district was interested in him, she again wrote back, "No, not true."

The initial job posting went up on Jan. 27. TUSD says the mistake in the necessary qualifications was discovered on April 26 after the "discrepancy in minimum requirements between posting and job description was reviewed by the acting chief human resources officer, and direction was given to suspend the interview process in progress."

On April 27, the interview process was suspended, and on April 30, the position was reposted with what TUSD officials say are the correct minimum requirements. Rene said the deadline for new applications was May 11.

Pedicone added: "I can tell you that none of the candidates in the first round were acceptable. We attempted to reopen and seek out more possibilities with fewer years of experience, hoping that a superstar would express interest. None of those candidates, while possessing many strong qualities, are acceptable, so we are rethinking the posting and the approach. The principal at Tucson High is extremely important to this district. We must find the right person to lead this school forward. ... That is where we stand at this point."

Pedicone's statement is interesting, because it would seem to disqualify Packard, a first-round candidate, as unacceptable.

However, that explanation doesn't wash with one source: "Look, Dean Packard applied when there was a three-year requirement. The bar was lowered to fit Dean." The source added that Packard would be a "wonderful principal some day," but that he needs more experience.

But the district's growing relationship with Ben's Bells makes some folks at Tucson High uncomfortable.

"This doesn't feel right, but it's hard for some of us who don't like it to say something," a source said. "After all, how can someone say something against kindness or something like Ben's Bells?"