HEAD OF THE CLASSES

SCHOOL-BOARD ELECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT. VICIOUS, GOOFY AND CONFUSING, TOO.

It's less than a month before the election. Do you know who your school-board candidates are? While the silver-spoon governor and the chubby grocer are busy trying to be "the education candidate" and former state senators Lela Alston and Lisa Graham battle for the primarily bureaucratic position of state superintendent of public instruction, the real fight for control of education is being waged where it always has been.

In the trenches. On the school boards.
Arizona's 223 school boards set tax rates, spend vast amounts of money, decide curricula and have the final say on who will teach, drive and feed your children every day.

Yet candidates for the most powerful offices in education go virtually unnoticed by most voters.

"The farther down you get on the ballot, the lesser chance you're going to get of people knowing who they [candidates] are," says Maricopa County Schools Superintendent Sandra Dowling. School-board members tend to fall into one of a relatively few categories: the angry parent, the political climber, the homeowner with a tax bill, and the brave martyr who truly believes he or she can make school a better place.

In some districts, school-board elections become a vicious fight for control. In others, whoever steps up to the plate wins. Twenty-six of the 55 school districts in Maricopa County, including some of the Valley's largest, have entirely uncontested races. Mesa Unified, the county's largest, has only three candidates seeking two seats. Tempe Elementary School District has more seats (three) than candidates (two). The third board member will either be a write-in winner or an appointment. Why the apathy, given the importance of the posts? Frankly, a school-board member is faced with a thankless, unpaid job that demands endless amounts of time and includes complicated issues and phone calls at all hours from ill-behaved people. All too often, the job must be done under the most vicious and bizarre of circumstances.

A few high- and lowlights of local control at work:

The place: Washington Elementary School District
Student population: 22,361
Annual budget: $100 million
Official issues: Fiscal responsibility, academic achievement

Real issues: Grand-scale personality conflicts, frozen teacher salaries The state's largest elementary school district, Washington is second to none when it comes to the politically outrageous. In the last election, longtime board member Jean Donaldson withdrew from the race, but too late for her name to be removed from the ballot. She won and resigned five months later. Then resident rabble-rouser Bob Hill was recalled from office and replaced by challenger Nancy Hill (no relation), who resigned after two months in office.

Former superintendent Carol Wilson, Bob Hill's archenemy, resigned earlier this year. Bob Hill's back on the November ballot.

Last week, in an apparently flagrant violation of the law, Alta Vista principal Vickie Biddle offered her staff a reprieve from schoolyard duty in exchange for donations to the campaigns of incumbent Michael King (who was appointed to the board), Alex Pensiero (who wanted to be appointed but wasn't) and Sonya Watkins. The three are backed by a group known as Citizens to Reclaim Washington School District. But the real question seems to be: Does anyone have control of the district now? This is a place where board meetings attract 500 to 1,000 people, at least 100 of whom want to speak. Angry constituents occasionally threaten to throw vegetables, teachers chant ("Two, four, six, eight. Give us a raise, it's not too late.") and, on at least one recent occasion, an Elvis impersonator showed up to lobby board members with song.

The place: Laveen Elementary School District
Student population: 1,653
Annual budget: $8 million

Official issue: Academic achievement Real issue: Principal's contract wasn't renewed Laveen, on the bad end of the state's economic-inequity problem, has two schools that are miles apart geographically and socially. Laveen Elementary serves the children of conservative farmers and some kids from the Gila Indian Reservation. Cash Elementary serves a low-income, primarily Hispanic community near 35th Avenue and Dobbins Road. The five-member board is from Laveen, which doesn't sit well with the Cash community, which tends to think it's being treated unfairly, regardless of whether it is, primarily because it has been regularly run over in the past. The board this year rearranged the administration, losing two principal positions. Among them was Marc Alop, a man popular in the Cash community for his involvement in sports programs. The Cash crowd rallied, gathering enough signatures to force a recall election of four of the five board members. Apparently, it didn't matter that half of them were up for reelection, anyway. So those four will appear on the November ballot twice.

The place: Phoenix Union High School District
Student population: 18,584
Annual budget: $222 million

Official issues: Dropout reduction, academic achievement Real issues: Minority student programs, teacher power Everyone who's anyone in Phoenix voiced an opinion on former superintendent Victor Herbert this past spring. Most of the Hispanic community joined with politicians and business leaders to support Herbert, but the teachers' union and some central Phoenix parents were successful in getting him booted, which cost the district $200,000. Herbert was long a supporter of programs for students at risk of dropping out of school. The underlying conflict between the needs of at-risk students, many of whom are minorities, and those in the mainstream, however, did not leave with him. Board member Joe Eddie Lopez walked out of a meeting a few months ago, saying that the board did not care about the needs of minority students. Ironically, for all the threats that there would be hell to pay at the polls over the Herbert decision, two board candidates are unopposed and the remaining three face only one challenger each. Odd considering that the incoming board will hire a new superintendent. Herbert opponents Kimball Arnold and Sandra Kennedy declined to run for reelection. Gary Klahr and Linda Abril, both of whom supported Herbert's at-risk programs, face challenges from current and former teachers. The place: Roosevelt Elementary School District

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