by David Safier
Before I get into my choices for the TUSD school board, I want to make sure readers understand that these are my own personal picks. They’re not official endorsements from the Tucson Weekly.
I’m going to begin the discussion of my support for Adelita Grijalva and Jen Darland by looking at the way school boards interact with superintendents regardless of the specific issues facing a district. Their interaction fits somewhere on a style-of-governance scale. At one end of the scale is a rubber-stamp board. The superintendent makes suggestions and recommendations, and the board simply signs off on them. On the other end is a micromanagement board. Board members peer over the superintendent’s shoulder watching his/her every move, play “Gotcha!” at every actual or perceived misstep and give frequent, detailed instructions about how to run the district.
Both extremes on the scale are examples of poor governance. Superintendents shouldn’t have a carte blanche for every hiring and policy decision they make, but they also shouldn’t be treated with the kind of suspicion and negativity Republican members of Congress show toward President Obama. An effective board should occupy a position somewhere between the two extremes, and it should slide up and down the scale depending on changing circumstances and the decisions that need to be made.
A board’s position on the governance scale is essentially a measure of its trust or distrust of the superintendent, and sometimes a measure of individual member’s sense of self-importance. Board members who believe they’ve chosen a competent, trustworthy person to head the district tend to trust the direction the superintendent is heading. They should look at the superintendent’s recommendations carefully and modify or vote against them when it makes sense, but when it’s a judgement call, they are likely to give the head of the district the benefit of the doubt. Their motto might be, “Trust but verify, and maintain a healthy skepticism.” Board members who question the competence and motives of the district head tend to distrust recommendations that come from the district, scrutinize every move in microscopic detail and only vote with the superintendent reluctantly. Their motto might be, “Distrust and scrutinize, because the superintendent is very likely incompetent and a scoundrel.” Sometimes, if their egos and sense of self-importance are large enough, they think they can run the district better than the person hired by the board to do the job. They make regular attempts to dictate district policy on issues large and small.
I happen to think the board made a good choice when it picked H.T. Sanchez to be superintendent. He’s not the perfect superintendent, but — full disclosure here — I wasn’t a perfect teacher in my 30+ years in the classroom, even though I gave my heart and soul to teaching and believe I did a good job in the classroom. I’d love to believe there’s such a thing as a perfect teacher or superintendent, but I’ve never met one myself. Like me and every other human being, Sanchez makes mistakes and will make more, I’m sure. But my sense is that he has the right focus and laudable goals, and he’s moving the district in a positive direction, both internally and in its relationship with the community. He’s willing to take chances, to make bold moves to improve students’ educations. On the whole, I trust his leadership, though I’m ready and willing to criticize him when I think he’s making a serious error.
Sanchez needs to be given room to take bold steps in his mission to improve the district. Some of his decisions will undoubtedly result in failure, but I expect more of them will succeed. But if he’s constrained by a board that wants to micromanage him, it’s unlikely he’ll be able to do much to move the district forward.
Of all the candidates running for the board, Adelita Grijalva and Jen Darland come closest to striking the right balance between trust and scrutiny the district needs right now.
Grijalva has been an effective member of the board during her tenure. I’ve agreed with most of the positions she’s taken, sometimes voting for the status quo, sometimes voting against it. Because she’s been on the board longer than her colleagues, she has more institutional knowledge than they do, which allows her to put current district issues into the context of past events and decisions. She clearly supports the superintendent she helped choose and wants to give him a chance to exercise his leadership.
While Darland supports the direction Sanchez wants to take the district, she definitely has a mind of her own. It was Darland who did the groundbreaking research that led to a statewide examination of Arizona’s Tuition Tax Credit laws and the School Tuition Organizations, a system of backdoor vouchers which funnels tax dollars to private schools. The highly critical series of articles in the Arizona Republic and the East Valley Tribune about the tax credits and STOs were based on her research. I’ve known Darland for a number of years, and I’ve asked her to do some research for me on more than one occasion when I couldn’t find information I was searching for. She usually came up with what I needed and more, adding careful analysis to the information she gave me. I have every reason to believe she will do similar research and analysis as a board member, not to micromanage or to play “Gotcha!” but to help the district make the best and most informed decisions possible.
Darland can also add a level of expertise to the board because of her understanding of state-level education finance which she developed through her long, dedicated work with the Arizona Education Network. Her understanding, which certainly rivals that of anyone on the board — and most district administrators for that matter — can prove to be a valuable asset to the district in its ongoing relationship with the state legislature and the Department of Education.
Just as there are no perfect teachers or superintendents, there are no perfect school board members. However, I’m confident Adelita Grijalva will continue to do an excellent job and Jen Darland will be a valuable addition to the board.