The District's Dozen

Three incumbents, nine challengers and a whole lot of issues: Welcome to the TUSD school-board race

The Tucson Unified School District's five-member governing board has three seats up for election this fall, and all three incumbents are running to retain their seats.

But nine other candidates are also running in the Nov. 6 election, looking to help govern a district that's gone through two years of chaos.

Two years ago, students in Mexican-American studies classes asked the board to fight efforts in the Arizona Legislature to ban the courses; they felt ignored and decided to take over a board meeting in April 2011. At the next board meeting, community members who wanted to attend were greeted by security guards who checked them for weapons—part of new security procedures. Once inside the board room, attendees were surrounded by Tucson Police Department officers dressed in riot gear. Seven people, including longtime educator Lupe Castillo, were arrested for speaking out. Some of the demonstrators reported that police roughed them up. Later, Tucson police Chief Roberto Villaseñor met with community members to apologize.

Mexican-American studies isn't the only issue that the district faces. There's also the district's ongoing federal desegregation case. A special master appointed by a federal judge is supposed to present a new desegregation plan on Sept. 21. The district is being investigated by the federal government over allegations that the board has violated open-meeting laws. And the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights recently found that a school psychologist was wrongly fired for attempting to advocate for special-education students. The district settled the case for $180,000.

There's also the dispute over the district's master plan for school facilities, which is expected to go to the board for a vote by the end of the year. It could include school closures and other cuts in order to help the district deal with a projected $17 million deficit.

For this article, the Weekly interviewed 11 of the 12 candidates for the three board seats. The one exception: Debe Campos-Fleenor.

When we called to interview her about two weeks ago, her assistant requested that we fax questions to the candidate, as she was "experiencing medical issues." We explained that would be unfair to the other candidates, and offered to do the interview over the phone.

In an e-mail we received after deadline, Campos-Fleenor explained that she had "major reconstructive foot surgery and am unable to have a (phone) interview at this time. ... Please accept my apologies, and thank you for reaching out to me."

The Incumbents

Mark Stegeman

Last month, TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone was awarded a $35,000 performance bonus (as called for in his contract), and his contract was extended a year. Board member Mark Stegeman, a UA economics professor, abstained from the vote, while the other four board members approved the motion.

The next vote that evening was to give Pedicone a raise, from $205,000 to $211,000. It passed 3-1, with Stegeman voting "no" this time, and Michael Hicks abstaining.

"I strongly supported his appointment, and I've supported almost all of his initiatives," Stegeman said of Pedicone. He said he voted against giving Pedicone a raise, because he is already paid more than the superintendent of the largest district in the state. "That didn't seem sensible when we are in a severe budget problem."

Stegeman said whether to extend Pedicone's contract should have been decided after the Nov. 6 election. "I think whoever is elected to the board should have a chance to weigh in. If I am re-elected ... I would certainly care about the opinion of those coming in, even if they haven't taken their seats yet."

The timetable for the school-facilities master plan concerns Stegeman, too, because a lame-duck board could make a decision on whether to close any TUSD schools.

Last year, Stegeman tried to introduce a resolution that would have made some of the MAS classes electives, explaining that his intention was to protect the classes from state efforts to kill them. This summer, he tried to introduce a resolution to return the MAS textbooks that were removed from classrooms following a state mandate. Because there are no longer any MAS classes, he was accused of political opportunism.

Stegeman earlier had been outspoken in his opposition to MAS classes. In August 2011, he testified at a hearing on the classes as an expert witness for the state. On the stand, Stegeman declared that the MAS classes violated state law, and he compared the classes to a cult. Four days later, he was ousted from his position as board president on a 3-2 vote, and was replaced by Miguel Cuevas.

But six months later, during the first board meeting of 2012, Cuevas was voted out as president on a 3-2 vote, and Stegeman returned to the position, with new board member Alexandre Sugiyama providing the decisive vote. Then, six months later, Stegeman gave up the position, and Cuevas was back in as board president.

Critics have said a lack of consistency in positions has fueled a long-standing distrust of the board. But Stegeman said "relations on the current board are gradually improving. I think the MAS issue has caused a lot of friction, and as that issue recedes a bit, that will help.

"I think everyone would agree the board isn't working together as well as it should be," Stegeman said. "I think the board needs to be more active and provide more leadership and direction to show the community where it wants to take the district."

Stegeman said he was surprised when Pedicone requested an emergency board meeting in the spring to discuss a $17 million projected deficit. "But I don't see it as a budget cliff," he said. "We have a problem to solve. I think it's good to be realistic about it ... but not over-dramatize it."

Stegeman said he wants to re-examine policies against retaliation in light of the recent settlement with the school psychologist who claimed whistle-blower status. "I want to look at those policies and make sure they are adequate, but I also want to ask the board to pass a statement of principle that we do take retaliation seriously, and that as a board, we are very committed," Stegeman said.

Stegeman said there is tremendous inertia in TUSD. The only thing that will change that, he said, is for the board to take a "strong leadership role to enforce change." Although the district is showing signs of improvement, he said, "If the board next year is as passive as it is this year, I'll be disappointed."

Asked to name some of his achievements while on the board, Stegeman points out a procurement decision in which he asked staff to put the purchase of 20,000 classroom computers out to bid, which he said saved the district $3 million. "It's not as important as student achievement, but ... if I wasn't there, I don't think it would have happened."

Stegeman also noted his efforts to bring the district and community members together to reopen Richey Elementary, a school the district closed almost two years ago that served a few hundred students in Old Pascua, the Pascua Yaqui neighborhood near Grant Road and Stone Avenue. Attempts to reopen the school were unsuccessful, but Richey could open next year as the district's first charter school.

Stegeman also mentioned a resolution he brought before the board that created a new policy requiring structured activities for students during recess.

Miguel Cuevas

Miguel Cuevas, a student who works for customer-service company Afni, is the youngest person ever elected to the district governing board. He was 21 when voters picked him four years ago, breaking a record set by now-U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, who was elected to the board at age 23.

Cuevas said his interest in running for the board came because he was the first person in his family to graduate from a district high school (Cholla), after his mother, father and brother all dropped out.

"That has always been my guiding focus: my experience when it comes to TUSD," he said. "I, as you know, have made sweeping changes when it comes to academic reform, teacher evaluations and leadership at our schools. At this point, I think we are on the right trajectory, and I want to see that continue."

Asked for specific examples he has championed, Cuevas cited increases in student achievement, district-wide professional development for teachers, and the purchase of 20,000 computers for student use.

"I believe that my youth has been my strength, in many aspects," he said. "I continue to be the only board member who has taken and passed the AIMS test. ... I have a younger sibling in the district, at Tucson High, and very soon will have another younger sibling going to kindergarten as well."

Cuevas acknowledged that his vote to dismantle MAS has come with a price, including being hassled at the Fiesta Grande Street Fair, being called names during school-board meetings, and having to deal with what he described as a protest in front of his grandparents' house. These experiences, he said, are part of "a learning experience. If I am going to be a change agent, I know there are going to be certain consequences."

The protest Cuevas referred to involved five supporters of MAS who canvassed residents in Cuevas' neighborhood. The volunteers went to his grandparents' home—which is one of two addresses within the district that Cuevas claims as a residence. His grandmother reportedly told them that Cuevas didn't live there anymore.

However, that address is on his voter registration and on re-election paperwork filed with the Pima County School Superintendent's Office. As a result of the possible discrepancy, Cuevas said, "It's my understanding that former (Tucson) City Councilmember Steve Leal ... submitted a complaint to the Pima County Recorder's Office," and that Leal's complaint was forwarded to the Pima County Attorney's Office.

Cuevas said his family and neighbors at the two addresses have been questioned, and that an investigator from the County Attorney's Office met with him.

"She seemed to be more worried about other items, like where I work at, and, quite frankly, I replied that it is none of her business," he said. However, Cuevas said he told the investigator that "I would comply with any concerns she has with my residence. I sent an email to my fellow board members and the superintendent of schools, and shared information with the leader of the protests," and made them aware that he lives at both his grandparents' home and his father's home.

"I received legal advice that because both residences are in TUSD, the issue is moot," Cuevas said.

Cuevas said he didn't know if the county had completed its investigation. A request from the Weekly to the County Attorney's Office asking for more information remains unanswered.

Leal confirmed that he sent an email about Cuevas to the Recorder's Office on July 27.

Cuevas said the investigation into where he lives is "a waste of taxpayers' money. This is all politically motivated and maybe an opportunity to score some political points through the county attorney's side." Cuevas added that there are people in the County Attorney's Office "who are politically motivated and are attached to Mexican-American studies."

Cuevas said he is still pursuing a degree, but isn't currently enrolled at the UA, where he was majoring in public management and public policy.

Regarding his relationships with his fellow board members, Cuevas said that what's taken place in TUSD is similar to what happens in other large urban districts, where board members have a variety of political leanings. "I believe collaboration is important."

But collaboration remains difficult, he said, because of special-interest groups that focus on negatives such as the uproar over MAS, and because of "former board members and longtime advocates who have been part of the district and continue to want to lead and control the district in various aspects."

Cuevas said that as president of the board, his leadership has kept the district from spinning out of control. "I believe progress we've made has been incremental, but also vastly positive. I believe there are certain detractors out there who would rather talk about MAS, talk about failures, and not talk about our successes," he said.

Cuevas said he wants to focus on building a multicultural curriculum that's being developed by MAS co-founder Auggie Romero. He also said the reorganized MAS department and its new director need to be "focused on student achievement and not political activism," an apparent swipe at the MAS program's co-founder and director, Sean Arce, whom the board fired.

When asked whether he may have received faulty legal advice when he voted to end the MAS program, Cuevas said: "It would be cowardly of me to say it was legal advice. But I sought legal advice from the district, and personally, I went out of my way to talk to constituents, business representatives, nonprofits, parents and students ... and felt this was in the best interest of the district."

Alexandre Sugiyama

When the Pima County School Superintendent's Office announced that Alexandre Sugiyama had been named to fill the late Judy Burns' seat on the school board, the appointment was scrutinized by board critics, who noted that Sugiyama, a UA economics professor, works in the same department as Mark Stegeman.

When Sugiyama was sworn in during a January 2012 board meeting, he quickly got a taste of politics, TUSD-style. After helping Stegeman return as board president, his next big vote was in favor of dismantling the MAS program.

"I got appointed at a certain time in the district's history that was a very controversial time," Sugiyama acknowledged.

Sugiyama described that meeting as the beginning of what he estimates will be a yearlong learning curve in becoming an effective school-board member. "I came prepared, having done research and (having) gone to training, but it is still difficult," he said. "I realize that when you are on the board, there is a lot to learn, and not a lot of time for a new board member to come up to speed. I actually enjoy the policy work and learning about what people do and how the pieces interact, and I realize I will be a better board member if given more time to do this."

While Sugiyama admits he's not always comfortable acting as an ombudsman between the district and interested parties, he said he is collaborative, is interested in how systems are developed, and likes to bring research and data to policy discussions.

Sugiyama said he also has insight into the district because his wife is a former TUSD teacher, and one of his children is in kindergarten this year, at Borton Elementary School.

Sugiyama said he decided to run for a full term "because I realize that people were very upset about the MAS thing, and I realized that it would not necessarily be good for the district if we got people who were passionate and ... interested in (just) one issue.

"We spend a lot of time in meetings dealing with legal problems—lawsuits against the district, personnel matters, talking about real estate. You end up spending a lot of time on just running the district. We have to vote on every single hire and fire."

If elected, Sugiyama said he wants the district to consider buying better software that can prepare budget reports more easily understood by the public. He said he also wants to increase transparency when it comes to carrying out district policies.

Sugiyama said he has heard reports that teacher morale is low, and he wants to examine ways to better use employee evaluations to help understand where the problems occur: at the school level, or within TUSD administration.

Despite what the public may see as a district with a lot of problems, Sugiyama said he's hopeful. He said he has met many talented people working in the district who are capable of solving its problems. But part of the challenge, he said, is a school board that is fighting itself over past mistakes instead of looking for ways to improve.

For example, he said, the Arizona School Boards Association ranks boards based on how much training they do. "We need to look more closely at those who have reached gold status. I think we should work on this, and do more training. It's important in order for people to gain more trust in the board."

While he's hopeful about the district's future, he acknowledges that meaningful reform takes time. "In a district this complex, nothing magical is going to happen overnight."

He said the recent forums on the school-facilities master plan were meant to educate the public on how the district spends its money, and not to serve as a discussion about where to begin cutting, although he acknowledges the board has been told there are "financial problems coming down the pipeline."

For supporters of MAS, Sugiyama hasn't been exactly easy to figure out. This spring, when the board voted 3-2 not to renew former MAS director Sean Arce's contract, Sugiyama cast one of the votes in support of him.

"That was a very difficult vote," he said. "Not only is it a personnel decision, which is challenging, but the issue has taken on a greater national and local significance. It has become symbolic. I didn't think voting the other way was in the district's best interest."

Sugiyama said that while he doesn't expect the MAS issue to go away, he wants to move forward with the multicultural-studies curriculum. He said it might achieve some of the same goals that MAS had, while keeping state politicians out of TUSD schools.

"There are certain times when you can say you really believe in something, but we have a supermajority of Republicans, and that is the political reality in Arizona," Sugiyama said. "I don't think it is in the best interest to pick a fight even if you believe you are morally right."

The Challengers

Ralph Ellinwood

Attorney Ralph Ellinwood was one of 54 people who applied to fill the TUSD board seat vacated when Judy Burns died suddenly in 2011. Sugiyama was appointed, but Ellinwood decided the board would benefit from his experience as a TUSD parent who has worked on a school site council, and his work as an attorney.

On the site council, Ellinwood said, he learned how the board, the budget and the administration can affect each school. And as an attorney who has represented many indigent clients, he said, he saw that many of them had gone through the TUSD system without graduating.

"That's a big problem. ... Why is it that so many kids don't make it out of high school? I saw it as budgeting issue," he said.

As an example, he brought up the desegregation fund and how the money went to schools that had large minority populations, such as Tucson Magnet High School, which his daughter attends. But when a judge declared TUSD in desegregation compliance, those funds were shifted to eastside schools and University High School, Ellinwood said. "Before, those funds used to go to a tutoring program and help for struggling students to pass the AIMS test. When the money started going elsewhere, that was an eye-opener for me."

Ellinwood said the board handled the district's Mexican-American studies program poorly from the beginning. The lack of curriculum standards made it easy for Republicans in the Legislature to criticize the program, he said.

Ellinwood said student achievement also is a major concern. He said that his site-council experience showed him that many Tucson High freshmen come to the school without sufficient English and math skills.

"It is almost impossible for them to take general curriculum and be successful," he said.

Ellinwood said he would get neighborhoods involved in discussions about possible school closures. As an example, he noted that Mission View and Ochoa elementary schools, in the South Tucson area, are well-loved in that community. "Why not ask them to come up with a plan? I think they'd come up with a good plan. And if it works, implement it."

Kristel Foster

Kristel Foster, a teacher who works in the Sunnyside School District's English Language Learners program, said she has always supported TUSD's Mexican-American studies program. But at a campaign forum, she acknowledged that based on the information presented to the board, she, too, would have voted to dismantle the program, rather than lose $15 million in state funding.

"Being as close to teachers as I am, I don't know if I could have turned to them to say, 'There goes $15 million, and possibly your jobs,'" she said.

However, Foster is quick to remind those who question her views that she supported the MAS teachers and the program before the vote. She said she understands "the importance of critical pedagogy and the value of the classes, and I'd vote to bring them back if I have the opportunity."

Foster questions whether the projected budget shortfall the board is dealing with is only $17 million. At a town hall, she said the amount could be more like $60 million, and that the district is counting on the passage of Proposition 204, which would fund education by extending a one-cent increase in the sales tax.

"It makes it seem fishy," she said.

Foster has faced concerns that she would have a conflict of interest if elected, because she works for the Sunnyside district. Foster said she wouldn't be the first TUSD board member to work for another district, and that her employer offers TUSD a good model for how to increase graduation rates.

A subject close to home is TUSD's program for English-language learners. The district has been criticized for following state rules that allow the students in the program to be segregated from other students for four hours a day. At Sunnyside, she said, the students are segregated only two hours a day. And so far, the state hasn't taken away any of the Sunnyside district's funding.

"TUSD could do much better for their students," Foster said.

Robert Medler

Robert Medler, vice president of government affairs at the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, was also one of the 54 applicants to fill Judy Burns' seat on the board.

Medler said he's running "because I see a lot of problems in how (the district) has been run, and I hear from a lot of people interested in Tucson who don't like what they hear about our schools. I wanted to step up and do something about it."

Medler said the dispute over Mexican-American studies has received too much attention and that the district needs to focus more on students who weren't in the program. If school closures are necessary, Medler said, the board should look at school performance, enrollment, building conditions and transportation costs in deciding which ones to shutter.

Medler said that "absolutely the board needs to better work together. I don't know any of them personally ... but, honestly, I'd meet them for a cup of coffee and get to know them personally" as long as it didn't violate open-meeting laws.

He said he's concerned that the district doesn't put enough money into classrooms, but thinks the biggest issue facing TUSD is its reputation—even if the criticism of the district isn't always justified.

"We don't have an override and can't pass one, but are our constituents really that different from (those in) Amphi or Flowing Wells (where recent overrides have passed)? I don't think so. So what is it?" he asked. "Like many things, a lot of those opinions are based on perceptions that are rather outdated: All the schools are bad; district is inefficient; no one at (TUSD headquarters) knows what they are doing; teachers are bad."

But there is a lack of data, he said, to back up such criticisms.

"Perhaps it starts with listening to both sides and improving communication," he said.

Menelik Bakari

Menelik Bakari is a retired TUSD school teacher. His last assignment was in 2007, teaching social studies to eighth-graders at Doolen Middle School. Bakari also worked as an adjunct professor at Pima Community College, teaching African and African-American history, and other history classes.

"I worked for the district for a long time," he said. "It bothers me when my district doesn't work. I've heard too many negative things. I want to help turn that around and turn that negative into a positive. I just feel that maybe new blood, maybe new spirit, will help."

Bakari said he's never run for public office before, but "my heart has always been in education. I also like history, and I've done a lot of traveling, and it's what inspired me to teach history at Pima."

Bakari said he hasn't attended many TUSD board meetings, so he can't comment on how the board has conducted itself in recent years. But "I think sometimes, grown-ups forget what (schools and schoolteachers) are all about. To me, it's all about kids and making kids better. I'm an old-schooler. It's about achievement and kids. That's why I stayed with eighth-graders."

As evidence of his connection with students, Bakari said that when he encounters former students around town, "They have good memories and are happy to see me."

As for returning Mexican-American studies to TUSD classrooms, Bakari said that when he first started working for TUSD, he was in the African-American studies department. He said he worked with district schools for five years on how to infuse African-American history into the regular history curriculum. "That's what has to happen here" with the MAS program, he said. "It needs to be part of all the history classes."

John Hunnicutt

On Tuesday, Sept. 11, John Hunnicutt and Stegeman spoke at the Pima County Republican Party's weekly luncheon at El Parador on Broadway Boulevard. Hunnicutt cited his local ties as he reminded the audience that he and his wife, blogger Loretta Hunnicutt, both critical of the Mexican-American studies program, spoke about MAS at a past GOP meeting.

"I was raised in Tucson and went to Salpointe High School and the UA," he said.

Hunnicutt, who owns a credit-card processing company that employs about 100 people, told the Weekly the district is bloated and needs to get administrative costs under control in order to put more money in classrooms.

Hunnicutt said he wants to improve the district's standing in academic achievement, which is among the lowest in the state. He also wants to ensure that the curriculum in all TUSD programs meets district and state standards.

"It doesn't take a rocket scientist," he said, to know that new teaching methods don't always help students do better, and that many of the old methods still work.

Hunnicutt filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in March 2011. In an emailed reply to questions about it—a reply which was also sent to conservative radio personalities James T. Harris and Jon Justice—he said, "Unfortunately, over 4 million people filed for bankruptcy since 2008. Over the years, because of my good fortune, I have funded many enterprises, including my own. Over the past three years, people were no longer able to repay to me the money I had lent them; as a result, I had to declare bankruptcy. I worked hard to keep people employed as long as I could and finally had to declare myself."

Hunnicutt told the Weekly that "I don't intend to run a hard race. I don't believe that school-board races should be as political as they have become. As a result, we will put up a few signs around town, and maybe a few radio commercials. Other than that, I have employed hundreds of good people in Tucson over 30 years. They know me, and they know what kind of man I am. If that serves to get me elected, that would be fine. If not, that would be fine as well. I will continue to work for the kids of Tucson one way or another."

Betts Putnam-Hidalgo

Before Betts Putnam-Hidalgo decided to run for the school board, she was one of the parents who showed up at board meetings wearing hand-lettered T-shirts expressing support for Mexican-American studies. She still wears such shirts; now, they say: "Vote Betts."

Discussions about how to fix the district's budget deficit, and whether schools should be closed, have made Putnam-Hidalgo think about how those buildings could be used differently—perhaps for adult classes or more educational programs for children.

But she also wants the district to consider partnering with vocational educational programs in which students would learn how to refit the schools to use solar energy, and to improve energy efficiency overall. "If utilities are some of the greatest costs at these schools, than let's do something about it," she said. "I recognize that some schools will have to close, but why not create a program that can save buildings, cut costs and help teach students these new skills? Why not partner with solar businesses and create a new curriculum?"

If budget cuts are needed, she said, they should begin in central administration rather than at individual schools. She describes the mindset that schools will need to be closed as a slash-and-burn mentality that is based on deficit figures that may not be accurate, especially if voters extend a sales-tax increase to fund education.

"I hate that we have to focus on (budget issues) right now, rather than have meaningful discussions on the state's core standards and the testing that comes with them. That should be the focus of town halls," she said.

If she doesn't win a board seat, Putnam-Hidalgo said she will continue to attend board meetings and remain active in the district. "So dream on, Dr. Pedicone and Mark Stegeman. I'll still be around making noise."

Cam Juarez

When Cam Juarez was putting up campaign signs a couple of weeks ago, some drivers saw him struggling to get the job done, and stopped to help. Juarez was born with phocomelia, which means his arms are underdeveloped.

"I guess they saw me, and because of my disability, they felt I needed help. I was fine, but I took them up on their offer. I think I ended the day with 12 votes," Juarez said, laughing.

Juarez said he has become known as the Chicano candidate who supports Mexican-American studies. But Juarez said he's not a single-issue candidate. Because of his disability, Juarez said, he understands how some kids struggle when they are different from other students, and he also understands how special teachers can make a difference.

"I had been beaten up in school for several years until one teacher built up my confidence. It never happened again, and I became popular with the other kids. They wanted to be my friend," he said.

Juarez is a planner for Pima County's Neighborhood Reinvestment Program, and he has a son who is enrolled in the Early Learning Center at Ochoa Elementary School. As a planner, Juarez has worked with residents in many different communities, which he believes would give him an advantage in dealing with the variety of constituencies served by the district. On his website, Juarez said that the current board "has squandered the district's legacy of quality, stewardship and excellence in education."

Speaking of district Superintendent John Pedicone, Juarez noted: "It's obvious some constituents don't like him, and others do," Juarez said. But "I don't want to find myself harping on him about MAS. Right now, we need to harp on him about the budget, school closures and (the increase in) class sizes."

Don Cotton

Don Cotton acknowledges that he struggles with name recognition in the school-board race, but he said that hasn't dampened his desire to help change the district. Cotton, a Vietnam veteran, served in the U.S. Air Force. He also ran small businesses, worked in purchasing for the city of Tucson and worked for the U.S. Postal Service before formally retiring.

He raised three children after his wife died when they were 2, 9 and 12 years old. Now he has two more young children in district schools, ages 9 and 12.

"When I was raising my first kids, I was so busy as a single dad, I didn't have time to get involved in school," Cotton said. "Now I feel it's time to get involved. TUSD is losing students and not spending enough money in the classroom. I believe the focus should be on the needs of the students."

Cotton said he wants to bring a business approach to the district and make administrators more accountable when spending district funds. "I also think we need to go back to basics—reading, writing and math at the elementary level, with support in after-school and before-school programs. We also need to encourage parents to be more involved."

Cotton said the district should suspend any plans for school closures and other budget cuts until after the board election.

"They knew about this deficit long ago," he said. "To move forward on this now—where were they a few years ago? And you don't approve a raise (such as one for Pedicone) when the district is struggling.

"I've heard (the incumbents) talking about how good it is, and that things are improving, but if that's the case, why are we losing so many students? We wouldn't be if they were doing a great job."

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