As TUSD works to tackle financial and academic challenges, one dozen Governing Board hopefuls are vying for three seats, each with a vision for turning around what is often seen as a problem-plagued district.
Of the 12 candidates, three are incumbents seeking four-year terms in Tucson's largest school district. Both Mark Stegeman and Miguel Cuevas are nearing the completion of their first terms, while Alex Sugiyama was appointed Jan. 3 after the death of longtime board member Judy Burns.
The candidates looking to take their seats are: Menelik Bakari, Debe Campos-Fleenor, Don Cotton, Ralph Ellinwood, Kristel Ann Foster, John Hunnicutt, Cam Juarez, Robert Medler and Elizabeth "Betts" Putnam-Hidalgo.
The top three vote-getters are elected to the board. The election is Nov. 6.
Though John Pedicone, the Tucson Unified School District superintendent, has referred to the district as being on a positive upward trajectory, citing improvements in academic achievement as evidenced by the state-mandated AIMS test and letter grades assigned to schools, much work remains to be done.
The same data show that while TUSD has improved, it still does not fare as well as the state average on the AIMS test, and the district has been given a grade of C overall..
TUSD is facing a $17 million budget deficit for the upcoming school year. The board has been tasked with coming up with a way to ensure the district is operating in the black.
The options to close the gap have included school closures, increased class sizes, pay cuts, staff reductions and the elimination of various programs.
The financial shortfall is one that the board has been studying for months, and a vote on how to proceed is expected in December - before any new board members will take office. Declining enrollment coupled with state budget cuts have been cited as reasons for the budget shortfall.
TUSD has also spent considerable time involved in several controversies involving equity and the education of minority students, drawing national attention.
Specifically, the elimination of Mexican American Studies courses caused much of the uproar, with supporters of the program disrupting or taking over a number of meetings.
The district eliminated the classes at the beginning of the year after Arizona schools chief John Huppenthal found the district in violation of state law.
The Star asked the candidates to respond to several questions. Here are their answers, edited for space, on two topics. See more answers with this story online at www.azstarnet.com
Candidate Bakari did not respond to the emailed questions.
Q: What would you recommend TUSD do to bridge the looming $17 million budget deficit? What are your thoughts on closing more schools to help with that shortfall?
• Campos-Fleenor, a local business owner: Unfortunately, TUSD has become far too top-heavy and burdened with administrative costs that have either no or limited value in the classroom. My approach would be to streamline the district and direct the funding to the classroom.
• Cotton, self-employed business owner: I would recommend reducing administration staff and consolidating their departments to reduce operating expenses. TUSD could look at alternatives to their current process of hiring substitute teachers. Qualified parent volunteers and vice principals could potentially be used to fill some roles usually handled by substitute teachers. Closing schools has not proven to be an effective solution in the past for TUSD. However, there may be some areas where closing schools is necessary and cost reductive.
• Cuevas, incumbent: It will continue to be in TUSD's best interest to advocate to our state leadership to fund K-12 education fully. Also, TUSD can effectively utilize the dollars it is given to continue to maximize its money to provide the best education for students. I believe that all options are on the table. It is important that we resolve the budget deficit through a balanced approach.
• Ellinwood, lawyer: Teachers are already underpaid, so I would not cut teacher compensation. I'd take a hard look at administrative expenses. Additionally, new revenue sources must be explored, i.e.: advertising on school buses, revenue from closed school sites not yet disposed of. I think TUSD must move to a K-8 model by consolidation, site enhancement and perhaps new site construction. Perhaps consolidation of some high schools will be necessary.
• Foster, Sunnyside School District program specialist: My strategy is to cut as far away from schools and students as possible and truly understand how the $17 million deficit came to be. Today, full disclosure of this deficit has not been provided to the public, and whispers of school closures are now at the top of the conversation. We must also keep the enrollment crisis in mind. We just cannot afford to lose more kids. Yes, we have to consider efficiency and effectiveness, but we must make sure we use the right criteria to measure the fate of our schools.
• Hunnicutt, CEO of a local business: I wish I had an answer; however, the district has not made sufficient information to the board or the public to make recommendations on resolving the estimated budget deficit. Closing schools is only one part of the solution. I'm not sure it is really necessary.
• Juarez, Pima County program coordinator: We would need to take a long, hard look at making cuts to administrative positions and or salaries - anything over $80K needs to be evaluated. This would also include redirecting our highly paid consultant jobs to staff already on the payroll. I am not in favor of cutting teachers or teacher salaries, but we do need to look at support staff. Next, we need to develop a comprehensive revenue-generating strategy. I would say that I am not in favor of closing any more schools.
• Medler, Tucson Metro Chamber vice president of government affairs: Across-the-board cuts should not be applied, nor should devastating cuts in any single department or program be made. Instead, the district should maximize efficiencies in easily identifiable areas and cut expenses within underutilized programs. This may mean having to reallocate or reduce programs that do not interact directly with students. Increasing revenue must also be looked at.
School closures are likely part of the solution. However, the process must be data-driven. A variety of factors have to be taken into consideration: occupancy rates, proximity to other facilities, utility costs, student-to-teacher ratios, long-term growth of surrounding neighborhoods, availability of programming and so on.
• Putnam-Hidalgo, self-employed landscaper and adult ESL teacher: Multiple strategies are needed to resolve TUSD's budget shortfall. First, we need to cut costs and consolidate administrative efforts at 1010 E. 10th St. These budget cuts should be as far from the classroom as possible. Second, TUSD needs to maximize its small-school model of neighborhood schools. Finally, if the TUSD board had to close schools in order to save money, I would advocate that: desegregation implications are weighed before closures could take place; closures only take place where the population base is declining; and elementary schools are not closed.
• Stegeman, incumbent: However large the budget gap turns out to be, the solution will probably consist of many small changes rather than one dramatic move. One large component could be exercising the statutory option to teach more instructional minutes, which would increase revenue by more than $10 million. Closing an elementary school saves about $350,000 annually, on average; closing a small number of elementary and middle schools is logistically feasible and should be considered. We must make some cuts to administration. I oppose cutting arts programs or teachers' salaries or increasing class sizes at the early grades.
• Sugiyama, incumbent: When dealing with its budget deficit, TUSD needs to be both educationally and fiscally responsible. Having huge class sizes or understaffed schools is educational malpractice; having underused schools is fiscally wasteful. TUSD has the capacity for an additional 13,000 students and not enough art teachers, music teachers, PE teachers, librarians and counselors. We have been under-using our facilities but overworking our teachers and staff - it is no wonder why not enough money goes into the classrooms. We need to stop loving buildings and start loving students.
Q: Is TUSD a good steward of taxpayers' money? How can the district manage its money better?
• Campos-Fleenor: No, TUSD has consistently placed the needs of students and parents second to the internal administrative staff. The true customer of TUSD is not first in line. TUSD's performance will not improve until its funding strategy changes to honor the educational needs of the student first.
• Cotton: Under its current leadership, TUSD has unfortunately failed by any definition of good stewardship with taxpayer money. TUSD's irresponsible spending is embarrassing to our community. This debt is due to consistent practices, not just big-ticket items. TUSD can start managing its finances better by being accountable for every dollar spent. I would start by looking at administration and how money in that department is handled. I would look at cutting some of the central office spending, to put more money back in the classrooms. Programs and curriculum need to be evaluated to see if there are better ways to deliver the same quality of education.
• Cuevas: I believe that TUSD has improved tremendously in its fiduciary responsibility. I have advocated for strong fiscal oversight by supporting the board audit committee, seeking improvements in the check and balances of daily fiscal operations, soliciting feedback and ensuring audits for educational program effectiveness.
• Ellinwood: I do not think TUSD is a "good steward" of taxpayers' money and has not been for some time. The Governing Board, as the policymaker, must insist on far more transparency of the budget and the budgeting process both for themselves and the public. What the public and the students want and deserve is an educational experience that graduates work-ready students, trained in critical thinking, prepared to be responsible citizens and ready to enter the workforce or obtain further education. Students having difficulty should be addressed at the earliest possible moment, i.e. in kindergarten, first or second grade.
• Foster: The TUSD Governing Board must be more transparent and accountable. Teachers are responsible for student progress, and the board should be responsible for how the TUSD budget improves achievement and increases enrollment. We have to find a way to measure the success of our investments and share this with the community.
• Hunnicutt: No. Consider the possibility that taxpayer dollars are something to be respected and spent wisely.
• Juarez: Considering that Arizona is 48th or 49th in the country for educational funding, I think TUSD overall is a good steward of our tax money. The district decision-makers certainly attempt to leverage what little we do have; doing a decent job most would argue. But let me be clear: I think there is plenty of room for improvement.
• Medler: In general, yes. I think the district has qualified professionals working within all levels of the organization. I believe the vast majority of TUSD employees have students' best interests in mind at all times. However, often in a large organization there exists a minority group which makes poor decisions, forgets the priorities of the organization and gives the entity a bad reputation. As a result, a relatively small incident can quickly be amplified into a perception of how the organization runs. The Governing Board has a responsibility to ensure that all employees are held to the high standards expected of public servants and those who do not are held accountable. The district must be more transparent on expenditures.
• Putnam-Hidalgo: TUSD has not been transparent in its stewardship of taxpayer money. It is nearly impossible for the public to understand TUSD's budget allocations, and this fundamental issue must be resolved. Three ways that the district could better manage its money are: develop a JTED job-training program to teach high school students to rehabilitate old buildings and make them energy-efficient, using our school buildings as their practicum; aggressively rent out TUSD assets and facilities in ways that increase student achievement and improve neighborhood cohesion; finally, TUSD should hire substitutes from its substantial pool of employees who are certified to teach but are no longer in the classroom.
• Stegeman: I have promoted changes in procurement that have saved taxpayers millions of dollars, but TUSD still has not embraced a culture of controlling costs. It continues to spend money on inessential activities and consultants. The state auditor general rates TUSD's costs of administration "very high" relative to other districts. I voted against this year's budget because of these concerns. TUSD also needs greater budget transparency: the budget book for 2011-2012 is still unavailable, 11 weeks into the new fiscal year.
• Sugiyama: In my time with the board, I always see people take financial matters very seriously, and I see people trying to use taxpayer money ever more prudently. This doesn't mean that the district is where it should be, but the district is making progress in this area.
• See two more questions and answers from the TUSD candidates at azstarnet.com
• Also, see the candidates' election bio boxes at azstarnet.com/elections
Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at email@example.com or 573-4175.