TUSD Toss-Up

Eight candidates vie for three hot seats on the board of the city's largest, most turbulent school district

The five-member board of the Tucson Unified School District faces enormous challenges as it tries to educate 61,000 students in more than 100 schools. The board must hire a new superintendent while confronting the end of a desegregation court order first imposed in the 1970s. Additionally, it needs to address the problems of a high number of schools that have been labeled "underperforming" while simultaneously attempting to usher the high school class of 2006 through the minefield of passing the mandatory AIMS test.

Despite those daunting tasks, eight people are seeking three four-year seats on the board, the only benefit of which is a designated parking space at the district's administration building. Each candidate says he or she can fill those spaces by adding an important ingredient to the board mix.

Incumbent Judy Burns cites her long-term dedication to the district, while Marilyn Freed says she will bring the perspective of a classroom teacher. Joel Ireland, who is seeking a fifth term, points to his experience and accomplishments, and Devin Mauney believes his perspective as a TUSD student would be an important addition.

Guadalupe Elena Parra thinks her background as an educational psychologist would be helpful on the board, and Pam Perry points out that she, if elected, would be the only parent of current TUSD students. Alex Rodriguez lists his business training as an asset, while Armand Salese stresses he will hold the district accountable for its problems.

Attorney Salese, 62, is openly critical of TUSD. "The district is not alarmed enough at failing to educate its students for the past couple of decades," he says. "If this were an organization making cars, the majority doesn't run. Eighty percent of eighth graders can't do grade-level math, and 60 percent failed the reading portion of AIMS. There's something wrong with those atrocious statistics."

Salese, who was involved with three past lawsuits against the district, believes the school board has been unwilling to hold top-level administrators accountable for these failures. He thinks the primary qualification for a new superintendent should be that he or she has successfully turned another school district around. "We don't want someone trying to perform brain surgery who hasn't done it before," he says.

Salese also believes strong principals are a key to achieving higher-performing schools and says the leadership at low-performing schools probably needs to be changed.

Rodriguez, 33, a business development manager at Raytheon, emphasizes another district shortcoming.

"There's a downward spiral of enrollment," he says. "Over 8,000 children who live in the district aren't attending its schools, which means a loss of $40 million in (state) funding."

To reverse that trend while preparing students for the work force, Rodriguez wants to listen to those who are voting with their feet by leaving TUSD schools. To do this, he supports hiring a strong leader to fill the superintendent position and lowering class sizes where needed. "Parents don't have confidence that TUSD can give the best education to their children," he says.

Discussing how to ensure most current high school sophomores pass the AIMS test by their senior year, Rodriguez says, "We have to raise the level of attention (to this issue) to a mini-Marshall Plan." He favors expanding after-school educational opportunities for students who haven't yet passed the test, and would make them mandatory if he could.

Perry has an even more ambitious idea for addressing the AIMS issue. She would like to develop individual learning plans and provide unique interventions for each failing student who is interested in passing the test, while also offering them voluntary summer school courses.

The major untold story about TUSD, the 41-year-old associate dean of the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona says, is the significant number of college scholarships earned by its graduates each year. But she believes some parents are fearful of TUSD middle schools and are also very savvy about researching the educational choices for their children.

To address these issues, Perry believes the district needs to market itself better. At the same time, she emphasizes her work experience when discussing why people should vote for her.

"We have a philosophy of excellence, of doing better, and of being innovative at the Eller School," Perry says. "Its time for the same at TUSD."

Parra, 53, also works at the UA, but as an educational psychologist. She applauds TUSD's serious commitment to provide a multicultural education to its students, but thinks the district must be more actively involved with parents while recognizing that they do have real choices about where their children attend school.

"Some of them are afraid (for their children)," she says, "or they don't feel a part of the system. We should empower school site councils. When people think their involvement is meaningful, they will continue to participate." She also believes the district needs to handle discipline problems better while preparing a needs assessment of every school.

Parra supports extra workshops and tutoring to help high school students pass the AIMS test. "We need to do a lot," she adds, "because band-aid programs won't be sufficient."

As an 18-year-old senior at University High School, Mauney believes helping students pass the AIMS test is the major issue facing the district. Pointing out that he has already passed the exam, Mauney favors providing individual attention to students who haven't.

Mauney says he is committed to staying in Tucson and thinks he will bring a new and optimistic voice to the board. His youth, he adds, won't be a factor in dealing with the political realities of elected public service.

"I'll vote for what I believe is right," he says with conviction, "and I'm not willing to compromise my positions or horse-trade my vote."

To document the district's successes, Mauney would like to track what happens in the lives of high school students after they graduate. At the same time, he wants to survey district parents who don't send their children to TUSD schools. "We need to make sure why they are leaving the district," he says.

Ireland, 50, was first elected in 1988. "TUSD is a very good school district with great achievements," he says. He also feels his experience and knowledge, when it comes to hiring a new superintendent and overseeing the end of the desegregation court order, are needed on the board. He additionally points to all-day kindergarten and the introduction of computers into the classroom as significant accomplishments during his terms of service.

From his perspective, Ireland says getting the high school seniors of '06 to pass the AIMS test is the highest priority facing the district. While calling the test defective and unfair, Ireland believes TUSD students have done better on it than have many others.

To address the needs of high-schoolers taking AIMS, Ireland says the district is already offering intervention programs and teaching test-taking skills. To aid under-performing schools, the local attorney would also like to offer bonuses to attract more experienced teachers to work at them.

For her part, Freed thinks the next superintendent needs to enjoy focusing on children and establish a track record of hiring the right people.

"I know wonderful things are happening in the district," the 55-year-old TUSD classroom teacher and two-time president of the Tucson Education Association labor group says. "We have to let others know that. I want to take a good district and make it great."

Freed indicates that finding out why such a large number of district parents don't send their children to TUSD schools is already being addressed. She says a survey of them will be done, then adds, "We need to get hard data before changing programs.

"The litmus test for me on every (board) decision," Freed states, "is I'll want to be convinced it will help children learn. Sometimes in the past, those decisions were made based on who was making the proposal."

One-term incumbent Burns offers a different view on why she is running for re-election. She wants to enhance school site councils and their role in district decision-making.

Before she was elected to the board, Burns says, the system for choosing school principals "seemed to favor friends of board members or those in high places." But because of recent changes, she continues, now the top selection of the site council is hired instead.

In addition, Burns wants to open up the process for selecting TUSD administrators. "We need to wipe out the good-old-boy network," she says.

To address student flight, the 56-year-old community activist thinks the district should consider starting its own charter schools. As to why people should vote for her, she concludes, "We must make sure every child gets the best education they can. That's my only agenda--to speak for the children and their parents."

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