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Updated Jan 10, 2012, 10:03 pm
TUSD's Governing Board eliminated its ethnic studies program Tuesday night in a 4 -1 vote following impassioned pleas from program supporters. Board member Adelita Grijalva was the dissenting vote.
Courses in the Mexican American Studies program were suspended immediately.
With the district facing the loss of 10 percent of it state funding, members were "backed into a corner" by the state Legislature, Board President Mark Stegeman said.
The board agreed to a deadline of August to come up with a revamped program.
While the board was weighing the next step with its ethnic studies program, a federal judge Tuesday refused to halt a state law essentially banning the program, but ruled a lawsuit challenging it can go forward.
Judge A. Wallace Tashima, of the U.S. Circuit Court, ruled against 11 Tucson Unified School District teachers and two students who requested an injunction against the law while a lawsuit they filed continued.
While Tashima ruled against the teachers, saying they did not have standing in the case, he said students could challenge the law on First Amendment grounds.
"We're still alive," said Richard Martinez, the plaintiff's attorney. "I feel like we made it to the Sweet Sixteen."
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Just before the vote, Grijalva made an emotional plea to her fellow board members to save the program.
"The board doesn't understand the impact beyond the TUSD community," she said.
She called the law, HB 2281, unconstitutional and "racist."
"The district was blackmailed by the Legislature," Martinez said.
A law that took effect last year bans courses that are designed primarily for one ethnic group, that advocate ethnic solidarity or promote resentment toward a race or class or people.
The district's Mexican American Studies program does all three, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Huppenthal last week.
That could mean up to $15 million annually, TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone said.
About 100 ethnic studies supporters, including members of Occupy Tucson, marched from Veinte de Agosto Park to TUSD headquarters, 1010 E. 10th St. Some played drums as they marched and arrived at 5:45 p.m. to the blowing of a conch shell and the wafting smoke from burning sage.
By 6:50 p.m., the board's meeting room, which holds 140 people, was filled to capacity. There were 150 demonstrators outside.
Although the meeting was scheduled for 7 p.m. board President Mark Stegeman announced the meeting would be delayed by about 30 minutes because the board was still in a special meeting in executive session.
"We're dealing with some really important issues," he told those in the meeting room.
When the meeting began around 7:30 p.m., Stegeman called on the audience to observe rules of decorum and to avoid rude or slanderous language.
Nicholas Dominguez, a Tucson High School student who takes three ethnic studies classes, said the program is important to the Mexican American culture and in uniting individuals.
"I believe these classes help you learn about your culture," he said. MAS classes are a way to "learn to live together," he added.
MAS supporter Sal Baldenegro Sr., said the issue was beyond a school matter.
"This a political matter, not an educational matter," he said.
Isabel Garcia, another MAS supporter, told the board members that state Attorney General Tom Horne, Superintendent of Public Instruction John Huppenthal, and Sen. Russell Pearce are "criminalizing our history."
Garcia warned board members, "history will remember what you did when you had a chance." She also urged them to stand up against "Mexican haters."
Sylvia Campoy, a former TUSD teacher, told the board that bilingual education has come a long way and reminded the members of the days when students were slapped for speaking Spanish in school.
"A the crux (of the controversy) is the concept of local control," she said.
Stegeman admonished speakers for criticizing individual board members, but Adelita Grijalva told him that if something were a legitimate criticism, it is their job to hear it.
"That's what we were elected to do: Sit here and listen to that," she said.
Some supporters disrupted the board room. One person called a board member Hicks "a rich white man" and another called him a "puto."
One supporter was escorted from the room by a security guard and others were motioned to leave. No arrests were made.
Outside, demonstrators chanted, "shame on you," as the board discussed Hicks' motion.
As the vote was taken, about a dozen demonstrators shoved forward a crowd-control barricade in an attempt to rush the meeting room's door. About six security officers held them back.
At an afternoon press conference outside Tucson Unified School District headquarters, they announced they would fight for the continuation of the MAS program even if the board does not appeal a state edict that withholds 10 percent of the district’s funding.
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“These classes helped us find our identity,” said Mayra Feliciano, 18, who completed the program her senior year.
“We’re not going to stop fighting,” Feliciano continued. A specific plan of action was not shared, but Feliciano promised a press release on Feb. 15.
“Students’ passion will overcome at all costs,” said Erin Cain-Hodge said, a current University of Arizona student studying microbiology.
Ethnic studies classes “inspired and motivated me, “ said Jesus Romero, another alumni of the program. “It made me a better student, son and member of the community.”
Retroactive holdback by state
Huppenthal's announcement last week included the surprise news that he was ordering the holdback of funds to extend back to Aug. 15.
Board member Michael Hicks, an opponent of the program, said Friday he and other board members were never told that the district could have money withheld retroactively.
"That wasn't mentioned to me," he said. Depending on how the state calculates the amount, up to $8 million dollars could be withheld, Pedicone said last week. The money would be available to be restored once the district is found to comply with the law, he said.
Inteviewed Friday, Hicks said he would move to "suspend the classes pending time to come into compliance" at Tuesday's meeting.
"I'd like to see American and Arizona history taught from multiple perspectives, not just Hispanic perspectives" in the classes, he said.
Stegeman also said the retroactive holdback was a surprise move.
The district "would have great difficulty coping" with the lose of that much funding, he said Friday.
"It's safe to say that they are trying to increase the pressure on the board take immediate action," he said.
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Stegeman said last week he was "unlikely to vote for an appeal" but didn't want to "make any black and white statements until we've had the chance to discuss it as a board."
The board has been effectively split 2-2 on support of the MAS program, and until the vote was taken, it was unknown if newly appointed board member Alexandre Sugiyama would vote to appeal. He didn't.
The state should withhold the money retroactively to Aug. 15, Huppenthal ordered. That could mean an $8 million holdback already this year, Pedicone said.
TUSD may have the funding restored once it complies with the law, Pedicone said.
No guidance on how to comply
On Dec. 27, a administrative law judge rejected an appeal by the district of an earlier determination by Huppenthal.
"For the educational well-being of all TUSD students and to ensure its schools receive the adequate resources they need to deliver a quality education, I strongly urge the TUSD Governing Board to take decisive and immediate action to come into compliance," Huppenthal said in announcing his ruling.
Huppenthal offered no guidance as to how the district might comply with the law.
He said TUSD should develop "a transparent, public process to insure that all curriculum and course materials align with state education standards and applicable laws and are thoroughly vetted by educators, curriculum experts and the local community."
Pedicone said the district would ask the state Department of Education for guidance on how to change the program.
"I'm not expecting a whole lot," he said last week.
The district will move forward with planning a new program that integrates Mexican-American history and culture into the curriculum, Stegeman said Tuesday after the vote.
Those new courses should be taught next school year, he said.
"I'd like to shut the program down and start over," said Stegeman last month, explaining that he supports the program's concept, but not its implementation. On a 3-2 vote, the Governing Board ousted Stegeman as president in 2010 after he proposed revamping the program. He was returned to his leadership position in a similar vote earlier this week, after Sugiyama was sworn in.
"The achievement gap (between low and middle-income students) is real. Some of the content is narrow and Euro-centric," he said in December. "Poor families, in poor neighborhoods, don't do as well. In our district, that means a lot of Latino kids."
The MAS program's status as a linchpin of a court-ordered desegregation program may tie the board's hands in making changes, Stegeman said. A federal appeals court ordered further oversight of TUSD's decades-long deseg efforts in July.
"We'd probably have to go back to the judge and have any modifications reviewed," he said.
"It'll be very hard to make adjustments" to the MAS program Pedicone said.
For ethnic studies supporters, "this runs far deeper than a course itself," he said.
"We have an obligation to not be insensitive to that perspective," he said, calling the controversy a "strongly charged emotional and political environment."
TucsonSentinel.com News Editor Janet Rose Jackman contributed to this report.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.