The Tucson Unified School District's governing board is expected to make a decision on the finalist they chose for the superintendent position—Heliodoro Torres Sanchez—right when the Tucson Weekly goes to press at the Tuesday, June 18 board meeting.
Which, of course, makes our headline almost moot—almost—asking if Sanchez is the right person for what is likely the least appreciated job in Tucson—superintendent of the region's largest and most beleaguered school district.
Reaction to Sanchez, who prefers to be called H.T., has been an interesting mix—folks not happy that the school board chose to present to the community only one finalist rather than several as it has in the past, a community forum on Wednesday, June 12 in the Catalina High Magnet School auditorium that ruffled progressive feathers with talk of creationism and climate science, and the use of the word indoctrination when discussing the now illegal Mexican-American studies classes.
At the June 10 special governing board meeting, the vote to approve Sanchez as finalist was 3-2 with Mark Stegeman and Michael Hicks voting no. Cami Juarez nominated Sanchez, but Stegeman said he felt there were other good applicants that needed to be presented to the community.
If the vote continues to be in Sanchez's favor, 3-2, then he's expected to be hired as TUSD's next superintendent.
Let's be honest. This isn't going to be an easy job for Sanchez, just like it hasn't been easy for current superintendent John Pedicone and those who came before him. This district is large, cumbersome and comes with extra complications that some districts often don't have—a 40-plus year desegregation case that continues to go back and forth in federal court; interference from state lawmakers that started as a tiff between Tom Horne and Delores Huerta that resulted in the dismantling of the district's MAS program; a shrinking student population and education cuts that have resulted in school closures; and a severe image problem.
That image may change since the district is slowly improving—for example there are fewer D-rated schools. However, it could be years before the district could ever pass a large school bond for, let's say, $129 million.
They were able to do that in Odessa, Texas in November, where Sanchez currently serves as the Ector County Independent School District's (ECISD) interim superintendent, a post he was appointed to three months ago from his position as chief of staff.
When first talking with contacts in Odessa, we were told some in the community were surprised Sanchez was possibly leaving the district for greener, or at least desert pastures, because of strategic planning work he continued to do with the district that made board members and others feel like he was certain to apply for the Texas community's superintendent position.
Deadlines and Aggravations
TUSD's current superintendent John Pedicone turned in his resignation in late March, saying it was inevitable since the retired educator and administrator—hired by the TUSD governing board almost two years ago—never really planned to stick around for the long haul.
However, Pedicone's resignation, effective the end of this month with a year left on his contract, arrived a day earlier than planned after a local blog post about the rumored resignation surfaced. The resignation also came with a long sigh from those who wondered if it was possible for the district to attract the kind of candidate that could stay the long haul.
But what does that mean by TUSD standards? First, that would mean staying longer than two years. Before Pedicone, TUSD hired Elizabeth Celania-Fagen, who left the district in 2009 for a district outside Denver, Colo., citing the state's budget cuts as reason for her exit. She was hired in 2008 to replace Roger Pfeuffer, retired like Pedicone, but first appointed interim superintendent in 2004 when Stan Paz resigned after ending a tumultuous relationship with the governing board. Paz, a former superintendent of the El Paso Independent School District, was hired in 2000.
The last time TUSD had a long-term superintendent was George Garcia, who was hired in 1991 and left the district in 2000.
But at the community forum, Sanchez told those in attendance, about 90 in the large auditorium, that his daughter was already crying about the possibility of selling their home in Odessa. Making the move, only to leave in two years, would be unfair to his family, he said.
Besides Tucson superintendent history, another reason to ask Sanchez this question was his application for a San Antonio superintendent position: When asked at a forum if he planned to stay put at the job beyond a couple of years, Sanchez withdrew his application and said he was needed in Odessa.
The forum opened with the moderator delivering some news that the district was unable to provide translators for the forum—Spanish and American Sign Language have become commonplace at special meetings.
But that only allowed Sanchez to shine at different points, translating in Spanish, only to be cheered in response. Other positive reaction came when Sanchez said he would buy a home in TUSD and send his children to TUSD schools, just as he's done in previous districts where he's worked.
Sanchez provided a lot of stories with his answers, but it was some answers that left some folks scratching their heads. For example, when it came to faith, Sanchez was clear that he was a devout Christian, and tried to explain how that wouldn't be an issue in his work life by explaining how indoctrinating students was not something he'd accept, especially for his own children.
So to provide more examples, Sanchez brought up creationism, evolution and climate science.
"Our jobs as educators is to put the information before students and allow them to debate it," Sanchez said, explaining that's how students develop critical thinking skills.
But then he went on to explain how when someone complains that it's hot outside rather then say it is global warming, others said it is a natural heating cycle. "There are those points of view ... Let them debate and let them make their own decision. Our job is not to indoctrinate, but to inform. ... As they become citizens they can make their own conclusion off the information (teachers) gave (them)."
And when it came to Mexican-American studies, Sanchez likely offended those who support the dismantled program. Again using the word indoctrinate, Sanchez said it isn't the district's job to do that. "I believe our job in education is to inform."
"Everyone has a story," he said, after saying that if the district was going to offer MAS classes it better do it for Irish Americans, Eastern Europeans and African-Americans, as well.
There's a learning curve here, and for Sanchez it will most likely be sitting down his first week for a lesson on the court-ordered desegregation plan that includes Mexican-American and African-American studies classes, as well as a multicultural curriculum for all students.
However, Sanchez most likely scored points with special education parents when one of the first questions asked was his opinion on special ed, an area he's overseen at a previous district and Ector in Odessa.
Sanchez said he believes special education students need to be part of the general education and not hidden away.
"What's the goal of special ed? Not for them to be in it forever," Sanchez said. "Life is general, there is no special education in life."
Life in Odessa
A few calls to Odessa, and a picture begins to surface about Sanchez and the district he is currently serving. He's religious. He likes to work on classic cars. He has two young children and a brother who lives in Odessa. His wife is also a principal of an Ector County school.
Similarities to TUSD also emerge—a Latino student population that makes up 65 percent of the district, and its own desegregation lawsuit that was recently settled by what Sanchez describes as having "everyone sit at the table together." But it is also a smaller district of about 30,000 students and 4,000 employees.
In TUSD there's politics—a board often split 3-2 and what the Weekly's been told is a deep mistrust between some of those board members. In Odessa politics exists, too. In May, the seven-member Ector school board of trustees had elections and saw three incumbents replaced and another incumbent decide not to run again—changing the majority of the district.
Under Sanchez's watch, there was the passing of the $129 million bond of which several people who talked to the Tucson Weekly credited to Sanchez and his work. But not everyone was happy with the bond and a plan to go to a middle school model. Right now high school goes from 10th to 12th grades, while middle schools go from 7th to 9th grade. The bond is going to help build more elementary schools and middle schools to help change to a middle school model.
There was also a curriculum debacle, CSCOPE, which wasn't just an Odessa issue, but a state-wide issue. However, there were charges that the administration bullied teachers and other staff to use the curriculum even when they felt they didn't understand it.
When news went out that he was a finalist in Tucson, some in Odessa were surprised, hoping he would apply for the still-vacant position in their school district. But perhaps, it was asked, the change in school board leadership made him realize he may no longer have support on the board he once had, such as that of Fay Batch, a former trustee who lost her seat this past election after serving on the board for six years.
Batch didn't hesitate when she said to the Weekly - "I am a fan of H.T."
Batch said she never talked about it with Sanchez, and didn't even know he was applying for the TUSD position, but she was one of those people surprised he'd leave Odessa after the good things she saw him do for the district. The change in governing board members could have been a factor, she said.
"H.T. is in my opinion the smartest guy in the room, not to say his talents would have been wasted on us ... My understanding that the (new) board wasn't necessarily in a hurry to name a permanent superintendent," she said.
She described Sanchez as a class act who's been able to use his contacts to benefit the district and she said she imagines he will continue to use those contacts to benefit TUSD. "Look, you can't please everybody and rarely does a school district please a large group of people at one given time," Batch said.
The work he was doing as part of the administrative team before being appointed interim superintendent did, she said, help the district pass the bond package. Batch further described him as someone who has the ability to listen, understands school finances well and has a vision and potential to be a great superintendent.
Batch said the work Sanchez did on Ector's desegregation plan ended up being recognized by the U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education.
"He put together a formula to address desegregation. It's now being used as a national model. ... It didn't mean anything to anybody in Odessa, but he was recognized nationally for this.
"This is the kind of guy you are getting here. He can come up with the goods."
Sanchez fandom also includes parents, like Malcolm Tyree, president of Ector's Parent Teacher Association (PTA), who said he worked along side Sanchez the past year to figure out a way to increase parental involvement in the district.
Prior to that work, Tyree said when Sanchez was working as chief of staff, he was always implementing a lot of the changes for the school district.
"He knows how to work with people and get people headed in the direction he wants to go," Tyree said.
"I was expecting him to seek the Odessa position. It was a bit of surprise and for me a bit of a disappointment."
But there are also Sanchez critics, like Odessa activist Jason Moore who hosts an anti-tax radio show. He admits he's been a big critic of Sanchez on the air and at meetings.
Moore said he also thinks the change in board leadership probably led Sanchez to apply for the TUSD position.
"One (of those new board members) has been very vocal that he doesn't think that H.T. has done a good job and was going to test the limits on the search (for the new superintendent)," he said.
There were other issues related to school board elections, such as confirmed allegations of a trustee's use of marijuana and a perception that Sanchez supported that school board member.
Moore said the CSCOPE curriculum ended up getting fixed through the state Legislature, but when people complained publicly in Odessa, Sanchez didn't want to listen and "acted like it was the greatest thing since sliced bread."
The switch to a middle school model rather than continuing to use the junior high model also angered people. "I kept asking if there were studies done that showed the middle school model was best. I never got an answer," Moore said.
In 2011, just like in Arizona, Texas lawmakers made severe cuts to education. It was communicated as if the district was headed for catastrophe, but then the district managed to set aside $9.5 million to build elementary schools.
He described Sanchez as a financial wizard, but that isn't a compliment from Moore.
"He's crafty, wily and he has a plan and doesn't always wait for the plan to be approved," Moore said.
"He describes naysayers as people who hate children and education if you don't believe in the plan."
Back at Home
Sanchez just got back to Odessa from Tucson when we talked to him. He was trying to spend some time with his two-year-old son and mow the lawn.
About the questions at the community forum, Sanchez said he through they were fair. On opinions that his interest in TUSD is based on the political make-up of the new board majority, in Odessa, Sanchez said the board discussed doing a national search, but he doesn't have an ego thinking there couldn't be anyone better than him for the Odessa position.
Regarding criticism of the CSCOPE curriculum, Sanchez said hindsight is 20/20, and he learned something during the process. To counter that, this summer he found money to pay teachers to come in and help rewrite the district's curriculum.
"It's easy to defend what we did and say, 'Everyone was wrong,' but instead we acknowledged we could do things better. This was our first week revising and rewriting our curriculum. That's where we are right now," he said.
But what about the things that Sanchez said during the forum, specifically on creationism and climate science?
"What I said was my faith is really important to me and I also believe in the separation of church and state. What's in the state and national curriculum is what we will teach. I don't have the desire or time to spend bringing in creationism (or climate science)," Sanchez said.
"There's so much work to do, the focus needs to be on those fundamentals rather than creationism and climate science."
There's the likelihood that Sanchez will be approved by the TUSD board with a 3-2 vote, an obvious split most new superintendents hope to never experience. "I definitely want to be the right person for the job. I'd be honored, still I would hate to leave Odessa. I love it here ... but you have to go where you are needed and where you're called."