by David Safier
Here are three good reasons not to vote for Republicans Michael Hicks and Debe Campos-Fleenor for the TUSD board. First, the two candidates bring a conservative mindset to a district that needs to be progressive and forward-looking. Second, neither is a strong candidate. Hicks has shown himself to be marginally qualified at best, and Campos-Fleenor hasn’t demonstrated any interest in learning about the intricacies of TUSD and public education, making her a blank slate for someone else to write on. Third, and probably most important, if both of them end up on the board, it would lead to a major shift in the 3-2 majority on close, controversial votes. Together, they would create a new majority with Mark Stegeman at its head, to the great detriment of the district. [Full disclosure: I'm a Democrat, in case there was any question about that, and I've already written about my support Adelita Grijalva and Jen Darland.]
Let’s start with the last point, the shift in the 3-2 majority if both Republicans are elected.
When partisans on both sides of the aisle look at the U.S. Senate races, they worry far less about which specific candidates are elected than about reaching the magic number of senators needed to give their party the majority. For Republicans, it’s all about picking up enough seats to reach 51. Democrats just need to hold onto 50 seats since Joe Biden can break the tie on close votes. The individual winners and losers are secondary to winning that one seat that puts your party on top.
Then there’s the U.S. Supreme Court. If the current court had one less conservative and one more liberal, crucial 5-4 decisions would have gone the other way, and the country would have taken a dramatically different direction on election financing, voter protections, health care and other issues.
Obviously, TUSD isn’t the Senate or the Supreme Court, so let's move a few links down the food chain to the Jefferson County school district, the second largest in Colorado. The district’s school board made national headlines recently when it voted to monitor instructional materials to assure they’re sufficiently patriotic.
[The board] would establish a committee to regularly review texts and course plans, starting with Advanced Placement history, to make sure materials "promote citizenship, patriotism, essentials and benefits of the free-market system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights" and don't "encourage or condone civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law."
It was a 3-2 vote made possible by a new conservative majority. And — this may be the most important part of this cautionary tale — the new conservative majority rode into office with the help of Democrats. Here’s how it happened.
The previous board supported the Gates/Murdoch “Big Database” company inBloom, hated by people on the right and left — including me on the left. I’ve written a number of posts about the evils of a huge, private, nationwide database like inBloom filled with detailed, intimate information about students. So when the conservative candidates vowed to keep inBloom out of Jefferson County, some Democrats said “Hell yes!” and voted for them, forgetting that when you vote in a conservative school board, you’ll likely end up with a right wing goodie bag filled with "patriotic" curriculum decisions, anti-teacher and anti-union votes, support for charters and vouchers and . . . you get the picture.
Would a TUSD board majority made up of two Republicans and the newly-minted Independent Mark Stegeman challenge the patriotism of the AP History curriculum? Probably not, though the Republican National Committee adopted a resolution condemning the AP course, saying it "reflects a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation's history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.” So who knows if a new round of curriculum wars will be part of the national Republican agenda? But there’s little doubt the district’s multicultural curriculum would be put under more intense scrutiny to make sure it doesn’t veer too far from conservative sensibilities, and the board's stands on issues like student discipline, teacher salaries/benefits and the district’s relationship with the teachers union would undoubtedly take a conservative turn.
The thought of what a new board majority led by Stegeman, who is openly supporting (and less openly strategizing for) the Hicks and Campos-Fleenor campaigns, controlling crucial TUSD decisions would terrify me even if I felt the two were competent candidates, but their weaknesses make the reasons not to vote for them even clearer.
I don’t need to say much about Michael Hicks since people have had years to observe him as a board member. He seems like a nice, well-meaning guy who even casts votes I agree with now and then, but he simply doesn’t have what it takes to be in such an important position. His grasp of issues is superficial at best, which means he votes on complex issues without bringing the necessary insight or understanding to the table.
Based on everything I know about Debe Campos-Fleenor, she is woefully unprepared to deal with the kinds of decisions board members have to make. I listened to her during two debates, and I sat down and talked with her one-on-one for an hour in mid September. In all three situations, she came across as a blank slate who says she wants to do what’s best for children but has little idea what that means. When I asked her opinion on Common Core, she told me with an assured smile, it’s not really that big a deal, because you can pick and choose the parts of the curriculum you like. When I told her Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum, she looked surprised and thanked me for the information. I asked her about the controversy over the Mexican American Studies program a few years ago, something which someone who cares enough about TUSD to serve on the board should have been following closely. She said she couldn’t judge the program because she hadn’t read the curriculum. Her opinion on the current Culturally Relevant Curriculum? She said she’s heard there’s some controversy, but she didn’t know much about it. She would have to take a look at the curriculum. I asked who she supported for state Superintendent of Public Instruction, expecting she might tell me that was a personal decision she didn’t want to share with me, an answer I would have accepted. Instead, she said she hadn’t decided yet. That was after the primary race was over and the two candidates left standing offered a clear choice to any informed voter, especially a school board candidate who should care deeply about the future of education in Arizona.
The most recent incarnation of Campos-Fleenor’s website has been beefed up with all kinds of specific ideas and programs she supports. Did the ideas and information come from her? Did she go from a low-information, no-ideas candidate to someone who could put together a detailed press release and a list of priorities in a matter of weeks? It’s possible, I guess, but highly unlikely unless she was purposely sandbagging during the debates and our interview. More likely, the ideas were formulated by others. And that’s the point. When you’re a blank slate, you can be handed packaged statements and you can be "advised" how to vote without your own ideas getting in the way.
I imagine this post has reinforced some readers' plans to vote for Hicks and Campos-Fleenor. For conservatives, the things that concern me are reasons to support the two candidates. But anyone who doesn't want to see TUSD move in a more conservative direction should cast their votes elsewhere.