With three seats up for grabs on the Tucson Unified School District’s school board, seven new candidates are vying for a chance to govern Tucson’s largest school district.
A local watchdog group that critically monitors the district, CARE 4 TUSD, hosted an online forum Thursday night for each candidate to outline their views on issues including reopening schools during the coronavirus pandemic, dwindling enrollment numbers and what they would cut from the district’s budget.
Although the current TUSD board has approved a new hybrid learning model, they have yet to vote on a date to return to in-person instruction.
The candidates running for three board positions include Ravi Grivois-Shah, Natalie Luna Rose, Nicolas Pierson, Adam Ragan, Sadie Shaw, Cindy Winston and write-in candidate Cristina Mennella.
Three volunteer, nonpartisan positions on the school board are opening when the terms of current board members Bruce Burke, Kristel Foster and Rachael Sedgwick expire in November.
While the candidates answered questions on a variety of topics at CARE 4 TUSD’s candidate forum, here are the highlights on what they had to say at the virtual gathering.
Meet the candidates
As a practicing family physician, Grivois-Shah says he will “help guide our district to make sound decisions on its COVID response.” He has three children in the district and says he’ll be a TUSD parent for the next 16 years.
Grivois-Shah wants his children to be able to engage socially by returning to school but says he doesn’t think it’s safe to reopen yet.
“If you talk to any physician in Tucson who went through the spike we had this summer, everyone is planning for a spike next month,” he said.
When it comes to the district’s decreasing enrollment numbers, Grivois-Shah says focusing on extracurricular programs, which many parents look to when choosing a school, would help boost participation.
Grivois-Shah has been a part of the district’s audit committee for two years and believes there isn’t adequate information available to make the daunting decision of where to cut from the TUSD budget.
“Our financial accounting is great...but I don’t think it meets the needs of our district,” Grivois-Shah said. “We need financial information that’s accessible, understandable and usable by the governing board so it can make these tough decisions.”
The family physician calls on his experience and personal stake in the district as a parent as reasons why he should be elected to the school board.
“Our schools are at a tipping point,” Grivois-Shahn said. “The decisions the TUSD governing board will make in the months and years ahead not only will impact over the 45,000 students and their families but will drive TUSD’s ability to support Tucson and compete in the 21st-century economy.”
Natalie Luna Rose
Luna Rose is running to be a “strong parent voice on the board” and is passionate about being involved in the district. She’s a graduate from Rincon High School with a daughter attending a TUSD and founded the Tucson Unified Parent Advocacy Council.
While acknowledging some neighboring districts have returned to in-person classes, Luna Rose doesn’t support TUSD returning with a hybrid model and believes the district should wait to return until after winter break.
The candidate said the district’s decreasing enrollment numbers’ are based on “old memories,” and negative perceptions of the district, and would focus on improving communication with parents if elected as a board member.
“We have a lot of progressive movement, but we keep focused on the negative...and it permeates into the community,” Luna Rose said. “I would like to help turn that negative perception around and try to feature the good things that are happening within our schools.”
If elected, Luna Rose would not support budget cuts that would defund the classroom or art programs and would instead look to save money by lowering administrative salaries, combining programs and looking at roles that could be “pared down through attrition.”
As a community advocate with an extensive background in the communications field, Luna Rose believes she can help turn around TUSD’s “perception problem” and push for more sustainable funding.
“I feel very strongly that the focus should remain on the immediate restoration of funding to K-12 public education,” Luna Rose said. “We need public education, it is the great equalizer.”
Cristina Mennella (write-in candidate)
As a speech-language pathologist, Mennella is leaning on her experience as a healthcare provider in public school settings while running for the school board. She works with many TUSD students on the autism spectrum and said, “First and foremost, I am a mental health advocate for my patients and my students.”
Mennella says she would base her decision to reopen schools on Pima County coronavirus metrics but today would vote to approve going back in a hybrid model.
The school board candidate says TUSD’s lower enrollment numbers have to do with bullying and a lack of special education services.
If tasked with budget cuts a board member, Mennella says she would start with advertising and reallocate funds to “learning-first” programs.
The three main priorities she’s running on include addressing student behaviors, teaching tolerance and enforcing school safety.
“I’m a passionate mental health advocate who has first-hand experience working with the worst of the worst behaviors when it comes to learning,” Mennella said. “I have solutions for our parents who have been frustrated with the lack of special education services in the public schools.”
Pierson is a former U.S. Army veteran and financial advisor who grew up attending public schools on the Tohono O'odham and White Mountain Apache reservations.
He supports TUSD returning to in-person classes but said teacher’s concerns should be addressed.
“Right now, there’s quite a bit of fear among a lot of the teachers with comorbidities, so that has to be respected,” Pierson said. “But there are still teachers who would be OK in the classroom, so I would be in favor of a hybrid model.”
To improve enrollment numbers in TUSD, Pierson says he would address “more respect for the substitute teachers,” as well as teachers’ concerns and parents’ feedback.
He said the district’s budget has had “structural deficits” for many years and believes the administration should provide transparent financial reports. Pierson also supports lowering the salary of administration positions.
“I would work on trying to make the administration balance out their costs to at least their peer group average, and we could start there,” Pierson said.
He believes his strong finance background could help stabilize TUSD and provide solutions to “structural deficits in the district.”
“There’s no more important part of our community than our children, and we have to enhance student achievement. We’ve got to close the student achievement gap,” Pierson said. “As a parent, a grandparent, a businessman and community leader, I’m very well-prepared to serve on the TUSD governing board.”
With three open spots on TUSD’s governing board, Ragan says the school board race is “one of the most consequential races that we have,” and believes the board needs the perspective he can provide as a high school English teacher.
The school board candidate is adamant that schools aren’t yet ready to return to in-person instruction.
“The reality is I am a high school teacher, I’m the only candidate right now facing having to go back,” Ragan said. “I spent my day today making lesson plans and working the master schedule trying to figure out how we’re going to make this work, and I am scared out of my mind. It’s the first time in my life I have feared going back into the classroom.”
To address enrollment numbers, Ragan believes the district should engage with parents to understand their reservations and that students are leaving TUSD because it doesn’t bring enough attention to programs such as dual enrollment and career and technical education services.
If tasked with making budget cuts as a school board member, Ragan says he would look to administrators.
“As a teacher, nothing honks me off more than seeing somebody make three, four times what I make, and I still can’t justify what they actually do for the education of our students or for my colleagues,” Ragan said. “I’m going to be looking making sure we attach goals and metrics to everybody in administration and we are spending our money in wise fashions.”
If elected, Ragan says he would be a champion for students, families and his colleagues.
“I bring a unique perspective that has been missing from the board and that no other candidate is going to be able to offer,” Ragan said. “I do have the dedication and drive to actually achieve success and drive for this district.”
Shaw is a TUSD parent, artist and art educator advocating for music, art and P.E. programs at all grade levels.
She would not vote to implement TUSD’s hybrid model and disagrees with forcing teachers to return to in-person classes.
“If we do choose to do the hybrid model, it should be consent-based. Only teachers who consent to going back should be going back,” Shaw said.
The candidate said she’s spoken to many parents who chose to unenroll their children from TUSD.
“This exodus from the district can be curved by improving the conditions of our schools and investing more in art, music, sports and CTE programs that charter schools lack,” Shaw said.
If she had to make budget cuts, Shaw wouldn’t defund anything “related to classrooms, teachers or students,” and would not support new administrative positions. However, she would start by cutting the grass.
According to Shaw, the TUSD spends more on irrigating its grasses than on purchasing library books, something she would try to change if elected to the school board.
Ultimately, Shaw’s running on the promise of change and advocating for equality across TUSD.
“We need new leadership, people like me who aren’t afraid to go against the grain and hold the district accountable for the policies that they promise,” Shaw said. “My goal as a board member is to address these inequities so that all students, no matter what zip code they were born into, will have access to an education that can be the foundation of their success.”
Winston is a science teacher of 28 years with two sons who graduated from the district.
She would support returning to classes in a hybrid model and says the decision should be based on “the 45% percent” of those who responded to a TUSD survey that they want to return to in-person classes. However, Winston says only teachers who are willing should be mandated to return.
She taught in middle schools for 18 years and says most TUSD students unenroll at this point in their education.
“My goal as a board member would be to first focus on those middle schools and give a sense of belonging to those schools,” Winston said.
When it comes to rearranging the TUSD budget, she suggested reallocating funds spent at the district level to the classroom.
“Can we look at each one of those departments and say, OK, what from there can be put back into the classroom?” Winston said.
One advantage she holds over her opponents, Winston claims, is she doesn’t intend to use the school board seat to reach a higher level of political influence.
“I’m not a politician, I have no desire to go to Phoenix or anything else,” Winston said. “This is what I’m passionate about.”