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Can Tucson's Disgraced School Board Be Saved? Interview With Betts Putnam Hildalgo

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Few school districts in the country have received the level of national attention like Tucson's Unified School District over the past two years. Not the kind of national attention, though, sought by educators and school boards.

Saddled with a disgraceful desegregation order, under federal investigation for civil rights violations, facing a potential $17 million budget deficit, operating under the reckless direction of Superintendent John Pedicone, the TUSD school board drew unprecedented national condemnation when it dismantled the district's acclaimed Mexican American Studies program, confiscated books from the classrooms, embarrassed itself on national TV shows for blatant racism and employed excessive police force at the school board meetings.

Can TUSD be saved?

Within days, three seats on the TUSD school board will be decided in this year's election, including the position of Mark Stegeman, whose erratic behavior led to a citywide campaign to demote him from board president.

I caught up with long-time parent activist and TUSD school board candidate Betts Putnam Hidalgo, whose grassroots campaign has won the endorsement of the local daily newspaper in Tucson and two influential education bloggers.

Jeff Biggers: You're a bilingual parent and educator. Do you see your campaign as a way of engaging more parents in the TUSD district, and do you believe the concerns of parents, especially among Latinos, have been overlooked by the current board?

BPH: I have made it a focus of my campaign to continue my school community activism while I run. I've gone to as many of the District meetings about potential school closings as I possibly could, still teach ESL classes to Mexican moms and dads at a local elementary school, and still go to Board meetings to advocate for more parent/community participation. The people developing and making district policy don't seem to know much about the school sites and know even less about Latino and "minority" concerns

JB: The TUSD school board has recently drawn a tremendous amount of scathing national attention over issues of censorship, civil rights violations, the dismantling of the Mexican American Studies program and its long-time desegregation order. Do you feel present board members like Mark Stegemen and Miguel Cuevas have handled the controversies in a fitting manner, or do you believe their actions have added to the polarization of Tucson? As a follow up, what first steps would you propose to bring together such divisions, and effectively heal a lot of the negative fall out over the Mexican American Studies crisis?

BPH: I don't think any of the males sitting up on the dais at the time handled the controversy well. From the chronic lack of support for the program to the actual controversy itself, District and Board members, with the exception of Adelita Grijalva were dismissive of Mexican American Studies' successes and by definition of the community that reaped its benefits. The ignorance and arrogance only compounded when the students occupied the Board room and the meetings. As the student voices got louder, the Boards' interest in listening got smaller. As I stated in various calls to the audience, far from appreciating how passionate the students were about their studies, District and Board personnel were scared of the community and its energetic response. Far from celebrating First Amendment rights, the District went on psychological lockdown for Board meetings and completely overreacted to the protests.

While Stegeman cites security overreaction to student protests as his greatest regret, I have yet to hear Miguel Cuevas express any regret at all. It was the perfect storm, as Horne and Hupenthal knew it would be, and they rode it all the way to their subsequent electoral successes.

First steps to heal the negative fall out? First, elect a new Board that is far more interested in the concerns of all of the "minority" students (who are now a majority of the District). Then, open up the Board meetings and hold them in a significantly larger venue, especially when there is a chance of a larger than usual crowd, like there certainly will be when the bogeyman of school closures comes to a head. The security issue, which seems to have morphed into a primary concern with the MAS demonstrations, must be resolved by opening up the Boardroom, not by shutting it down. Some suggest rotating the location of Board meetings as another way to open them up to more people.

More substantive steps need to be taken to deal with the underlying issue that MAS exposes--the District doesn't do a good job of offering all kids an opportunity to an excellent education. Despite all the other problems facing the District, the new Board needs to unapologetically* focus on righting this wrong--from the desegregation order to MAS. A good program was taken down, exposing a chronic disregard for a key community in TUSD--that must be countered. Whether that means rejecting the old Boards' decision to not challenge the State or whether it means a careful and detailed revision of the curriculum to bring it into unassailable compliance with standards and the kangaroo court, the issue must not be sidelined or avoided.

* Note: The MAS issue has been a very interesting issue in the campaign. While it was, initially for me, at least, the defining question that most potential voters asked, many "pundits" and organizational actors appeared to treat any mention of it as making one a "single issue" candidate. If it were a program that could potentially benefit a lot of Anglo CEO's kids, would a focus on it seem "single issue"? I think not!

JB: You managed to earn the endorsement of the local newspapers--the Arizona Daily Star and key bloggers like David Morales and David Safier. While other school board candidates might have amassed bigger war chests, do you feel your grassroots campaign has tapped into a widespread desire for new leadership in Tucson?

BPH: I hope so...as I go through the different forums with all of the candidates, I hear more politicking than new ideas. Probably others are better campaigners than I am...reminding the public constantly of what their achievements have been, etc. I really just came out of the soup--I am quite literally a parent with no further political aspirations advancing my school based advocacy to the Board.

So far, I have talked about some pretty unconventional ideas in my campaign, with a lot of good response. People are genuinely pleased that someone is thinking outside of the box in a creative and refreshing way.

JB: How would you propose improving TUSD accountability and transparency?

BPH: As the only elected officials in the District, TUSD Board members have a great responsibility to solicit popular input into District process. This needs to be done with adequate advertising to actually get the public out. Then the input received must be taken seriously by Board members and District staff and incorporated where possible into policy recommendations. The possibility of interactive town hall meetings with Board members needs to be explored, and Board members should make themselves available with "office hours" like University professors hold. The budgeting process needs to be clarified and simplified so that most people can understand it, and staff must be directed to allow public documents to be seen by the public without a lot of difficulty. After all, as taxpayers and stakeholders, this District is ours, and yet often our requests for information are treated as if we were interlopers. Without us and our children, there is no TUSD, there is no Governing Board.

JB: Three seats are up for grabs. Are you supporting any other candidates?

BPH: Obviously I get asked alot who else I recommend or who I would prefer to work with. I would like to have as large a group of progressives as possible. However, among the progressive board candidates, I have had the same hard time choosing that others are having. Some are more independent that others, some are more consistent than others, some have more experience in the schools than others. In my experience watching the Board for lo these many years most of the Board members make good decisions AND bad decisions. The latter can reflect a hole in their logic or knowledge that you could drive a truck through. But in general I think, as long as they are not "politicians in training" most of them are trying to do what they think is right.

I would like to work on issues, not on personalities. If an important issue comes up, I will work with whoever to resolve it. In some ways I am blessed by my lack of the "standard" endorsements, because I don't have to answer to anyone other than who I've felt the Board should answer to anyway--the school community (parents, teachers, students and school staff) and in a larger sense, taxpayers.

JRB: Finally, school districts like TUSD are constantly grappling with closing the achievement gap, especially in underserved and poorer communities. How can the school board play a role in assisting teachers to "level the educational playing field," as one of your campaign planks promises?

BPH: I think that smaller class sizes (18 kids, especially in K-3), reduced standardized and high stakes testing (which should NEVER be used to either "grade" the school or "grade" the teacher's access to bonuses) are a good baseline for leveling the playing field. Certainly we also need to further develop and nurture our homegrown programs that reach and teach to our students' diversity. That diversity is the gift of our district. More multicultural learning that both reaches out to and reflects the experiences of our students needs to become the norm for learning, not an exception.

By the same token, our pedagogy needs to be diversified--once our kids no longer spend inordinate amounts of time filling out bubble tests, we can focus on project learning and relevant issues, physical activity, outdoor classes, music, etc.

JB: Other comments?

BPH: As we face a potential 17 million dollar shortfall, I want the District to re-vision itself. While we hear that the neighborhood school model is obsolete now that our demographics have shifted, I don't buy it. I think we need to hang on to that neighborhood schools model. Where there are schools with extra capacity, the neighborhood needs to be surveyed about its needs, and those needs should be met through using the school building. For example, areas without pediatricians should be served by a doctor that rents office space and consults in the school itself. Other uses for extra school capacity could be counseling services, food distribution points, etc. The point is, the schools need to be the center of the neighborhood again. Older schools need to be revitalized into energy sustainability by students working through the JTED (trades) program with mentors and others. The option of school closure should be off the list of possibilities, if only to really force the district into some creative problem solving.