TUSD Tussle

If Only This Election Were An O. Henry Story.
By Tim Vanderpool

WATCHING DECISIONS emerge from the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board is like reading an up-ended O. Henry tale where scoundrels exit unscathed.

There's plenty of huffing and puffing, gloating, pontification and alleged pandering to special interests, with students' needs often getting squashed in the process. Yet board members face few moral consequences, short of getting yanked from office.

The vast district suffers the ravages of juvenile violence, lack of lasting progress on court-ordered desegregation, embattled magnet schools and a bilingual education program stumbling over its own fiscal shoestrings.

But three current members running for re-election--Joel Ireland, Mary Belle McCorkle and board President Jim Christ--have defended their deliberative process with sidesteps and obfuscation. Meanwhile four contenders for the district throne, Bruce Forché, Judy Burns, Mary Terry Schiltz and Jesus Zapata, have called for a halt to bitter infighting, though it's unclear whether they offer expertise and big visions to tackle the task.

Still, attorney Ireland says the public image proffered by the board, and especially by himself, simply isn't correct. "I understand why the challengers qualify us as grandstanding," he says. But bloody battles are inevitable "if we're elected by people to represent them. Forché always brings that up, but I think it's a red-herring," he says.

On specifics, Ireland calls for expanded bilingual education, enhanced security in classrooms, and abandonment of the desegregation order. While few educational alternatives exist for problem-causing students once they're booted from school, he says it's really not an issue, since most of them are "already involved in the juvenile or adult court systems by then. If they're in jail they can't get to school anyway."

And he says the desegregation mandate resulting from a 1978 lawsuit should be nullified. "I think we should get out of it," he says. "It's an ancient order, and it doesn't work."

Ireland also considers the 17-member Independent Citizens Committee, a court-created desegregation-monitoring stepchild of the 1978 lawsuit, as "part of the problem, not the solution. They try to usurp the board's policies."

Indeed, the committee has acted as a quasi-legal agent when it comes to holding the desegregation flame under the board. And that has provoked plenty of acrimony, says ICC chairperson Rosalie Lopez. "Joel Ireland said he'd rather have needles stuck in his eyes than come to any of our meetings. So I sent him some needles as a gift. I never heard whether he thought it was funny."

Mary Belle McCorkle, a former TUSD teacher and administrator, says "of course" she supports the ICC. "I was very instrumental in creating it." As for desegregation, "I think we can always do better, and treat all kids equally. But it's time to look again at the plan as a whole."

Jim Christ didn't return phone calls, and candidates Mary Burns and Mary Terry Schiltz were unavailable for comment. But Bruce Forché and Jesus Zapata say current methods for implementing segregation--particularly busing--are ill-advised.

Onetime teacher Forché, now a mailman with two kids in the district, points to students living across from Utterback Magnet School who are hauled across town as exemplifying the problem. "And my own sixth-grader is affected," he says. "My own kid is bused to school every day. I think that's wrong. I think students should have a choice."

According to Zapata, district demographics have changed drastically since the court order, and he demands a review. "The court order happened years ago, and nothing has changed anyway," says the state Department of Economic Security job counselor. Though he doesn't support forced busing, "It is the law right now, and that's how it is," he says.

And like Forché, he questions funding for desegregation, money that doesn't fall under state-mandated district spending limits. "I think its just a slush fund for the board to use as they want," he says.

But ICC chairperson Lopez, a legal scholar, takes both Forché and Zapata to task. She says most of the district's busing is voluntary, and that the pair tout unconstitutional views. "They really don't know enough about what they're talking about," she says. "They're really espousing 'separate but equal' education, and they don't know the law."

Regardless, Zapata says he does know one thing: "In my job I see the exact opposite of what is supposed to be happening at TUSD. I see a lot of kids who don't even know how to fill out an application form, kids who aren't prepared to meet employers' needs."

He says it's high time the district starts creating a "better product for employers. Not all these kids are heading for college, and I think we should have more vocational training for them."

McCorkle and Ireland say a good chunk of the approximately $38 million in desegregation funding--out of this year's total $253 million budget--goes toward support services for that program. And, offering up a plateful of platitudes, McCorkle says all her actions on the board put the students first.

"My focus is on quality education," she says. "I'm a grandmother, I love kids, and I want them to have the best education possible. I'm for bilingual education and for zero tolerance of drugs and weapons in school."

Concerning constant complaints by teachers of overly full classrooms--and charges by Forché and Zapata that more than 300 certified district instructors spend their days in administration--McCorkle says it just ain't so. "It's really easy for people to say that," she says. "A lot of those teachers are in positions such as speech therapy, for example, and they play very important roles."

Forché advocates strengthened reading curricula and an end to "petty personality conflicts affecting the board's policies and making it impossible to teach our children." He says many of the current board's decisions hinge on pressure from special interest groups, sparked by big contributions to McCorkle, Ireland and Christ by administrators and the Tucson Education Association, a teachers' union.

McCorkle says she never took union money, and Ireland says his record shows he never bowed to association demands.

Ridiculously large warchests aside--Christ has lassoed more than $4,800, Ireland over $7,800, and McCorkle a whopping $10,000--the ethics of O. Henry might yet be prevail, either through a new board or newly humbled members come November 5.

Perhaps, as wealthy scion Richard Rockwall gloomily remarks in Mammon and the Archer, "There are some things money can't accomplish." TW

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