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TUSD chief: Can't run schools like a business

Pointing out that education isn't a product for sale but something that benefits the entire public, new Tucson Unified School District Superintendent H.T. Sanchez told a liberal political group Wednesday night that "you can't run education like a business."

Citing statistics about the longevity of restaurants (numbers that some studies have shown to be hyperbole), Sanchez pointed out that if a local eatery closes its doors, customers may "miss a few plates of food" but if a school closes, "you have uneducated students."

Sanchez nonetheless pointed to what he said were improved efficiencies in Tucson's largest district.

"For every student who left to go to a charter school, we have another student who came back," he said of enrollment patterns this school year.

Speaking to an audience of about 25 at the Drinking Liberally discussion group on the patio of the Shanty, 401 E.9th St., Sanchez answered questions for about 90 minutes.

Sanchez said that school choice, including competition from charter schools, has a positive effect on public school districts.

"It's woken us up," he said.

"We don't want to be the General Motors of public education," he said, referring to TUSD as a "sleeping giant."

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The superintendent said it's a myth that "poor people don't value education."

"I was poor growing up," he said. "I had three pairs of pants, and for Christmas I got a new pair of shoes."

Sanchez said he believes it's the district's job to serve all of its students, and help make them successful.

Sanchez didn't provide questioners a clear picture of his views of Common Core standards.

"You don't test people to success," he said at one point. "You support them."

But, he also said, "a standard or a performance objective, it's the same thing."

Common Core standards involve "just what we've always done," Sanchez said.

Accompanied by four of his top advisors, Sanchez used those TUSD administrators to claim that the district is efficient.

"The work I'm asking these folks to do is a lot different than in the past," said Sanchez, who took the reins of TUSD this summer.

Sanchez told the audience, which included TUSD Governing Board members Kristel Foster and Cam Juarez, that the district's hands are tied regarding some programs, including court-mandated desegregation efforts.

"The (Unitary Status Plan)? It is what it is," he said. "I'm not knocking it, because we have to live with it."

But "a whole lot of funding is tied to people who are not classroom teachers," he said. "It does look bloated and it is bloated."

Sanchez provided a clearer answer to a question that dogged him during TUSD's hiring process.

"I'm not a creationist," he said in response to an inquiry that drew chuckles from some in the audience and a grimace from district spokeswoman Cara Rene.

"Climate change is a scientific fact," Sanchez said. "What people teach in their own homes is none of my business," but the idea that he wouldn't back teaching evolution is "comical."

"We've got a whole lot more work to do than to be messing with that stuff," he said.

Sanchez briefly touched on the district's funding challenges, describing the state's budgeting process as run by a "crooked Robin Hood" in the form of the Legislature.

"They send (taxes) to Phoenix and then they dole it out," he said. "I don't think it's equitable."

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Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

Sanchez spoke to the Drinking Liberally political discussion group on Wednesday night.