TUSD Found In Violation Of Law, Board Overhaul Needed

One of the greatest frustrations for stakeholders in, and observers of, Tucson Unified School District is the lack of regard for state and federal laws by the District’s leadership. Last week’s action by Board president Adelita Grijalva to suddenly strictly enforce a Board policy in order to silence critic David Morales brought into sharp focus the arbitrary nature of the Board’s application and adherence to laws and policies.

On Saturday, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office finally found that the District’s leadership had violated Arizona’s Open Meeting laws. Specifically, the AG found that leadership had violated the Open Meeting law when it conducted a discussion of Superintendent H.T. Sanchez’s contract in Executive Session.

The AG’s office barely gave the District a slap on the wrist, but given that the AG’s office has ignored multiple citizen complaints about the District, the finding was significant nevertheless.

Long-time educator and education activist, Rich Kronberg, summed up the AG’s action. “As usual, the republicans who run Arizona are more interested in giving us the appearance of doing something to reign in the truly awful TUSD Governing Board than actually doing anything about it. That way they can have it both ways,” said Kronberg. “They can appear to be dealing with TUSD while keeping it around so they have a great example of the ills of public education (a veritable punching bag) when they promote for-profit charters and tuition tax credits.”

Some might chalk that up as a conspiracy theory, but Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich’s close associates have admitted as much.

Rather than work to address what is wrong with TUSD, republicans write it off as a lost cause and charter school selling point.  That might be fine with some, but it certainly is not fine for people who care about the health of southern Arizona and the futures of over 40,000 kids.

Despite the fact that TUSD gets more money per student than any other local district and more money than all but one of the other 9 large Arizona districts, democrats use TUSD’s troubles as evidence that the schools need more money. However, it is because of TUSD’s failings that taxpayers are hesitant to throw good money after bad even though the bad is really limited to a handful of dysfunctional districts like TUSD.

Looking the other way

Lillian Fox, a retired TUSD teacher, and education activist says “It’s about time the Attorney General acted! These are not TUSD’s only apparent open meetings violations; they’re just the most recent.”

Fox, whose expertise on the workings of the District is unparalleled, gives an account of prior actions:

One of the most egregious open meetings violations was at the July 21, 2014 Board meeting, when Superintendent Sanchez  told the TUSD Governing Board and the public, there were no changes in any of the 2014-2015 employee agreements. Privately, Superintendent Sanchez had told the Board majority, Foster and Juarez and probably Grijalva, that he was ending all future longevity stipends and stipend increases for teachers in the TEA agreement and extending elementary principals from 10 to 12 month contracts in the ELI agreement. He did not tell, the Board minority members, Hicks and Stegeman about any changes. In the public meeting, he said there were no changes to the agreements.

Hicks and Stegeman had only Sanchez’s word, because they had no copies of the contracts. Before the vote on each agreement, Hicks asked specifically, if there were any changes. Every time, he and the public were told there were no changes to the employee agreement.

After the contracts were finally published and available, Stegeman brought the TEA and ELI contracts back in the October 14, 2014. He questioned how the contracts could be valid, when the Board wasn’t allowed to have copies and was not told the truth. Superintendent Sanchez and Adelita Grijalva got up and left the room shortly before the discussion began and did not return until the discussion was effectively over. During the discussion, Foster and Juarez repeatedly said they knew about the changes and knew what they were voting on. They insisted that Hicks and Stegeman would have known too, if they had asked Superintendent Sanchez during their own private meetings with Sanchez. Stegeman and Hicks, both took the position that the Board is supposed to vote on what is said in the public meeting, not on what is said in a private lunch meeting.

Anyone who wants to witness Foster, Juarez and Sanchez’s open defiance of the open meetings laws, can watch the October 14, 2014 agenda item 9 video or listen to the audio recording.

TUSD at a crossroad

There is little chance that the AG or the Arizona Department of Education, or the State Board of Education will take action to protect the kids and stakeholders. The republicans’ insistence that local control gives them an excuse to do nothing makes it even more imperative that Tucsonans do something.

They effectively ignore both the federal and state constitutions that leaves control over public education in the hands of each state. It is nothing short of hypocrisy to complain about federal overreach in the arena of public education as many elected Arizona officials have done, along with millions of other Americans, when state officials refuse to act in the face of what amounts to a blatant refusal on the part of the TUSD Governing Board majority and its unethical superintendent to both follow state law and fulfill their oaths of office to put the education of TUSD students ahead of their own personal, financial, and political gain.

This year, voters can make meaningful changes by changing the Board. Board members Kristel Foster, Cam Juarez, and Mark Stegeman are up for re-election. One only needs to review the footage of the last Board meeting to see which of them must go.

While Stegeman tried to intervene on Morales’ behalf, Juarez stared and smiled at Morales as security personnel escorted him out of the building. Juarez’s smug demeanor epitomized the Board’s view and treatment of the public. Foster’s passive-aggressive abuse of her fellow Board members and the public is disturbing on every level.

More disturbing is the fact that both democrats and republicans wring their hands while TUSD leaders allow kids to wring each other’s’ necks because the leadership offers chaotic and ever-changing implementation of discipline policies. Like the policies ignored or enforced by the Board, schools are forced to do the same with discipline depending on the administration’s whims and appearance concerns.

It is the District’s focus on appearance rather than substance that makes addressing the real source of the problems impossible. Hence, the only way to change the District is to elect candidates who don’t give a damn about how it looks, but care deeply about how it works.

How it works for kids, teachers, parents and taxpayers.