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To impose greater discipline on my constituent reports, my new goal is to write once a week, even if the report is short. History however suggests that excessive brevity is unlikely to be a problem. The board’s decision to suspend the Mexican-American Studies (MAS) courses hardly ends the issue, because we have much work to do to create a new curriculum which will address the original goals, reach more students, and be less vulnerable to criticism. We should nonetheless also be able to invest more attention in many other pressing issues, which affect more students, families, and dollars. The email which brought this report has several attachments: My Feb. 9 Star oped, which is a 600-word summary of where we are with MAS, why, and the road forward. Staff-generated information on the availability of the MAS books in our high school libraries. The school site budgeting formulas for 2012-13, which were adopted by the board last week. This (6 page) letter covers eight topics: New board member. School calendar. Disposition of closed school sites. 2012-2013 budget formulas. Desegregation cases. MAS books in libraries. MAS walkouts. Board leadership. As usual, this letter reflects only my personal opinions, not official board or district policy.
New board member After a tortuous process and long hours for the board-appointed committee which advised the Pima County superintendent of schools, Dr. Linda Arzoumanian, I was happy to learn that she had appointed Dr. Alex Sugiyama to be our new board member. Dr. Sugiyama, like me, teaches economics in UA’s Eller School of Management. (I play no role in his supervision or evaluation.) Whether this strikes you as good news or bad news probably depends upon whether you think it is good or bad to have people who think like economists governing school districts. I am sure that Dr. Sugiyama will serve the district well and that this will become obvious to the public over time. He is smart, diplomatic, works hard, and is committed to K-12 education. (His wife is a teacher outside TUSD and they have a child who will be entering Borton elementary school.)
School calendar The district adopted the 2012-13 school calendar in January, and we clearly mishandled the issue. I have long been advocating for a creative and thorough review of the school calendar, and I am glad that this finally started to happen this year, though it was a rocky start. Changing long-established practices always requires extra work, and I appreciate staff’s efforts. The underlying problem with this year’s calendar process is that it was too late. Most districts adopted their calendars months ago, but staff presented its two recommended calendar options to the TUSD board in January. They both differed from the traditional calendar and were controversial. The main difference between the options was that one added a week-long break in October and started a week earlier, during the first week of August. The board asked for community input, and most of the input from the schools and from an online survey (which attracted thousands of responses) favored the earlier start. So the board chose that one by a 5-0 vote. A significant minority preferred the later start, though, for good reasons: many had already made conflicting plans for early August. I was unhappy with both options, partly because many of the local districts (e.g. Amphitheater, Catalina Foothills, Flowing Wells, Marana) have calendars which start in the second week of August and have an October break, and neither of our options did both. I suggested a couple of compromises, including one which shortened the proposed October break from five days to two days (like Flowing Wells), started on Monday August 6 (like Marana), and closed schools on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving (like Catalina Foothills); the total instructional days would have been the same. Even if those ideas had merit, however, they came too late. People were understandably reluctant to choose something unexpected at the end of the process. That underscores the problem of the late adoption; rushed decisions are often not the best decisions. I will try hard to ensure that this does not occur again. We should start the 2013-14 calendar process now, leaving plenty of time for community input and completing the adoption in the fall. I think staff agrees. In my opinion, a comprehensive assessment of the calendar should study what other districts are doing, around the U.S., and consider the following possibilities: Move closer to a year-round model (as Vail District now does), using breaks to provide extra time for students who need that help. . Start high school later in the morning. Eliminate early-out Wednesdays and instead provide professional development during half-days on occasional Fridays, with a financial incentive to help ensure teacher participation. The other half of the day might be used for student-teacher conferences or extra instruction for students needing help, or as a teacher work day. Reduce slightly the number of instructional days and compensate by adding a few minutes to each day. A more radical alternative would increase total instructional time beyond the minimum required by the state. I do not claim that these are all good ideas, but I think they should be studied, with plenty of input from families and district employees. There may be many other ideas to add to this list.
Disposition of closed school sites Of the nine elementary schools which the board voted to close in 2010, we have now approved long-term leases for three of them. In chronological order: (1) The International School of Tucson (IST), an independent private school offering a pre-school program and a smaller elementary program, is leasing the Jefferson Park site. (In this context “private” means that the school charges tuition, unlike charter schools, which are financed by the state.) After a movein and renovation period which ends in November, the initial triple net lease rate is $61,000 annually, rising to $100,000 in two years and with a 3% minimum escalator thereafter. (The Jefferson Park site is smaller than most of our other sites.) Some board and staff members have publicly expressed reluctance to open TUSD’s closed school sites to competitors (i.e., other K-12 schools). I advocated vigorously for IST, as did the Jefferson Park neighborhood, and consider the board’s eventual 5-0 vote for that lease a victory. I oppose many aspects of the charter school system in Arizona, but some charter schools are good and I disagree with a blanket position against leasing any of our closed schools to the better charters (or private schools). (2) Pima Community College is leasing the Roberts school site, to house several PCC units which are moving from other sites. The initial triple net lease rate is $70,000 annually, eventually rising to $130,000 with a CPI escalator. (3) Last week the Board approved a lease agreement with the Pascua-Yaqui tribe for the Richey school site. Richey school had served the Old Pascua neighborhood, where many members of the tribe still live. In 2010 I supported eight of the nine closures but opposed closing Richey, because the tribe had offered financial support and wanted to work with us toward a solution which would work financially and educationally. The board however preempted that process by closing the school on a 3-2 vote. Since then, I have advocated strongly for finding a way to recreate a school at the Richey site. The new lease agreement reserves about half of the school for district use. If all goes according to plan, then we may open TUSD’s first district-operated charter school there (but not this year). I consider this a win salvaged from a loss. The tribe is paying essentially no rent except for the promise to maintain the entire site, but I had no objection to this given the history of the situation. The remaining six sites (Duffy, Fort Lowell, Reynolds, Rogers, Van Horne, Wrightstown) are in various stages of planning and negotiations. Some decisions are likely soon. I am sorry that the process has proceeded so slowly, more slowly than the Board expected, but it has been careful and the affected neighborhoods have provided much input. I expect the final outcomes to be reasonable.
2012-13 budget issue: formulas for the allocation of resources to schools On Tuesday the board adopted by a 4-1 vote staff’s recommendation for the main formulas to determine the allocation of funds to schools (excluding desegregation and Title I funds). I cast the negative vote. I attached the formulas, as staff presented them to the board, to this email. (Please excuse some notes which I scribbled during the meeting.) The new formulas represent another swing in the pendulum of decentralization. The Fagen administration reacted to TUSD’s history of heavy centralization and bureaucratic control (in some areas, while exhibiting very lax monitoring and control in others) by giving each school a budget and unprecedented control over how to spend it. Almost everyone now agrees that this went too far. Schools had arguments over elementary decisions such as whether to have even a principal, and some schools made bad decisions which required later intervention and compensatory spending by central administration. The district has now gone into full reverse by imposing detailed and in my view somewhat arbitrary formulas which will determine how many custodians, counselors, office personnel, etc., each school will get, determined mainly by the school’s enrollment. As you can see from the tables, schools still have flexibility to reallocate funds between some items, such as substitutes, monitors, overtime, and supplies, but it is very limited. I think we have again overcompensated and are depriving schools of appropriate flexibility, but just as in other areas we are working toward fixing many historical problems and it will take some time to get everything right. I appreciate staff’s effort to impose some order on the chaos, even if (in my opinion) we did overshoot the mark. I had two other more specific concerns connected to the budget formulas. First, the budget eliminates the funding for an instructional tech liason at elementary and middle schools, continuing the Fagen administration’s trend toward centralization of IT decisions and support (contrary to its general inclination to decentralize). The current administration inherited an expensive IT department and support system, relative to the size of the district, and I hope that staff thinks about ways to restructure and reduce costs in this area, as we upgrade TUSD’s hardware and systems. Second, I was concerned about the accuracy of the enrollment projections which will be used, in conjunction with the formulas, to determine school budgets. TUSD has done fairly well, historically, in projecting enrollments, but the current projections of 22 students in the Museum School and over 110 in the Aztec schools (which were operated with support from Pima Community College) probably seem high to anyone familiar with the recent restructuring in TUSD’s alternative education programs. As in other areas, staff is working hard to fix shortcomings in TUSD’s allocation of resources, but it will take time to the get the district running more efficiently, so that we can get a larger share of our budget into the classroom. I expect much discussion of our budgeting processes and priorities, during 2012.
Desegregation cases In July, the 9th circuit court returned TUSD to court supervision (where it has spent most of the last several decades), and in September the district court responded by ruling that the post-unitary plan (PUP or PUSP) which the district adopted in 2009 should remain in force until a recently appointed special master develops a plan to replace it. That plan is due on July 6. Because the PUP refers explicitly to offering MAS courses as electives, the board’s January 10 resolution suspending the MAS courses also said: “Implementation of this resolution shall be consistent with guidance received from the federal court concerning the district’s desegregation cases.” Our counsel argued, in a court filing on January 13, that “The MAS Department will continue to work towards implementing the programs and activities required by the PUSP, though it will not be offering courses taught directly under the supervision of the MAS Department. The MAS Department will work toward developing a curriculum with supporting texts and materials that can be incorporated at all levels into the District’s social studies programs.” On February 2 the Mendoza plaintiffs, the Mexican American side of the desegregation plaintiffs, filed an objection to the board’s suspension of the MAS classes. We shall see where that goes, but it would be unusual for the board to cast a vote which TUSD’s legal counsel felt would create major legal risks. The board approved the current PUP in 2009 by a 4-1 vote; I voted against it for many reasons, including incoherence and verbosity. The district’s current staff seems to agree that the PUP is badly flawed, and our new post-unitary plan might look considerably different (but that is speculation).
MAS books in libraries As was widely publicized and also discussed in my last letter, the board’s decision to suspend the MAS courses prompted district staff to remove from classrooms and place into storage seven titles which were used in those courses. Each of those titles is currently available in some TUSD high school libraries, but none of them is available in all of the libraries (cf the list attached to the email). Some high schools have requested additional books, to the extent that they are now in storage. For example, Sahuaro high school originally had only one of the seven books in its library, but it has now requested copies of the other six. A school’s site leadership typically decides which books to put in its library, and that applies also in this situation. The number of books in storage is smaller than one might guess, perhaps because students often used copies or transcriptions of material in the published books. If the demand for any of the seven books exceeds the quantity now in storage, then central administration does not plan to purchase additional copies, but sites are free to purchase copies for their own libraries.
MAS walkouts After the board’s vote to suspend the MAS classes, student walkouts occurred on several school days, including the 99th and 100th days of the school year. (State funding for the following school year depends substantially on average daily enrollment and attendance through the first 100 days of the current school year.) I do not know the exact number but think that about 250 students were involved altogether, comprising mainly high school students from Cholla, Pueblo, and Tucson high schools, but also including a few students from Wakefield middle school. The district has released official information concerning the response to these walkouts. Speaking only for myself, the disciplinary measures imposed should have been consistent with what is normal for leaving school during the school day, for any unexcused reason. As far as I know, that more or less happened. There does exist some discretion in the disciplinary guidelines, and some but not all of the involved students appear to have been treated on the lenient side of those guidelines. The board generally stays out of student disciplinary issues, leaving this to the judgment of school principals, and I agree with that practice. All of this begs the question of whether TUSD’s current policies and regulations concerning walkouts make sense. Some persons have argued, for example, that current policy and practice do not adequately recognize the difference between not showing up at school and walking out after entering school grounds. I have not formed an opinion on this issue – among other things, I would like to know more about how other districts handle similar infractions – but it is an important question. In general, the board makes decisions by public vote and those decisions are typically broad and lacking in detail. After the board’s resolution which ordered the classes to be suspended, staff made most of the decisions concerning implementation, such as: keeping the students with the same instructors, removing certain books from classrooms, and responding to the student walkouts.
Board leadership The terms of the Board president and clerk, the Board’s “leadership” positions, expire at the end of each calendar year, so the first Board meeting in January always includes a leadership election. I was returned to the president’s position on a 3-2 vote. As I say whenever the issue of board leadership arises: the practical significance of these positions is small. Every board member has the same single vote. The main advantage of the presidency is having some extra influence over the setting of the agenda, though several years ago I pushed for and obtained reforms which greatly reduce that influence.
Thanks for your continued interest in TUSD.