What the Devil won't tell you
School board races need love, too
It's very strange when we have to think in terms of "parental involvement" as a warning sign when it comes to kids' education.
Very little will help a kid succeed in school like parents determined to get their offspring the best education possible. Parental rights? Yeah. OK.
A couple things to remember, though: The right to a public education belongs to the kid and not the parent; and two, as a parent, I have a right that my kid's education not be limited however little the most ignorant parent associated with my kid's class feels comfortable.
Now, at the local level in Arizona, the whole parental rights isn't as much of an issue because the state's Legislature has already, brought up and codified most of the bad ideas floating around, while micromanaging education.
Policymaking is largely done out of Phoenix and the school boards just have to salute and adapt. So long as the Arizona Legislature stays in those hands, this is just Arizona's reality.
On the other hand, one can't bang the drum for democracy and then complain too much that local school boards are reflecting the will of voters populating local school districts. No law will revoke a person's capacity to take a different track then their parents.
A more conservative part of town, is going to have a more conservative atmosphere for learning.
While the end maybe nigh for American democracy at the state and national level, there are school district races buried in the massive 2022 ballot. Tucson-area school board elections this year are mostly slated to elect two members to five-member boards. So stealthy post-COVID-19 takeovers of districts are less likely to happen.
The county collects and posts candidate mission statements at the school superintendent's website. Plus there are candidate websites and social media pages where candidates can reveal themselves.
I've perused them to give you an idea of who's running for what.
Just bear in mind that anyone who throws their proverbial hat into the ring at this super-local level is volunteering to do a service in an atmosphere that can get hostile fast. Snark aside, nothing but respect for school board candidates.
Catalina Foothills Unified School District Governing Board
I just wrote that elections aren't likely to flip control with a single election.
The one exception is the Catalina Foothills Governing Board, where a slate of three candidates – shall we say – have been inspired by mask mandates to run for three seats. Grace Jasin, Bart Pemberton and William Morgan are all running to enforce the Arizona Parents Bill of Rights, which was enacted by the Legislature to protect parents rights to basically raise their children as they see fit and provide the moral guidance in their children's education.
So if that's your jag, those are your candidates.
If it's not, then there are incumbents Amy Bhola and Amy Krauss, running alongside Family Faculty Organization volunteer Gina Mehmet. They are running to continue the district's direction. They are also running on a slate to keep the school board somewhat technocratic and less activist.
One warning to culture warriors on the right: Go slow in the Catalina Foothills. I've studied election returns out of those ritzy suburbs for years and it voted for gay marriage – and by huge margins – years before it was popular. The Foothills voted for Mitt Romney in 2012 but broke hard against Trump in 2020.
Start banning books in this well-educated well-to-do enclave and a recall election will be in the offing.
A couple political veterans are among six candidates seeking two seats on the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board.
Jennifer Eckstrom is running in TUSD after serving for years on the Sunnyside Unified School District Governing Board and as mayor of South Tucson. I'm guessing she's moved. Luis Armando Garcia is a former state senator and a former board member of a Pima Community College District. He's also running
The region's largest district, TUSD has two seats open and the most, shall I type, "colorful" candidate is Val Romero. He fashions himself as the King of Barbecue digs red hats and Elvis costumes. He's running on paying teachers more and some sort of reprioritizing of budgets for the classroom.
He showed off his MAGA hat during a run for the Tucson City Council, he's not really pushing hot-button Donald Trump-esque messages on his campaign for school board.
Rebecca Zapien and Brienna Chillious are both educators, who are seeking a seat on TUSD's board. Zapien is a educational certificate evaluator with the University of Arizona's College of Education and former teacher. Chillious is a librarian, running on a pro-library platform to improve childhood literacy.
William Soland is an attorney who vows to protect LGBTQ students and "end the school to prison pipeline."
The Amphitheater Unified School District governing board has two seats open.
And if you like the mustache-twirling state Rep. Mark Finchem, you'll probably like Jeffrey Utsch. Utsch is a former Naval SEAL swimming instructor. He describes himself as a self-educated constitutional expert, who's Twitter feed includes retweets condemning black racism, questioning whether Paul Pelosi was even attacked and promising punishment for any leader who imposed mitigation efforts during the peak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mona Gibson, meanwhile, is a former human resources administrator running on her understanding of budgets and listening to constituents. That's another way to go, I guess.
Susan Zibrat is a volunteer, who provided leadership in the district's recent budget over-ride election. She says she is running to advocate for more school funding (Arizona ranks 48th in the country in per-pupil school funding). She also promises to pay special attention to the post-pandemic problems relating to student achievement.
And then there's Matt Kopec. an incumbent running for his second term on a platform of expanding early education and completing a career center at Amphitheater High School.
Thomas Costello is running a write-in candidacy to support teachers and protect students from agendas that are "political or religious."
Marana Unified School District
I can tell readers this much about the candidates for two seats on the Marana board: They write well.
Incumbent Tom Carlson is a retired Army veteran who is running to continue the district on a path he says he's proud of helping steer. The district spends less than 10 percent on administration and while its test scores are not through the roof, he points to the community's feedback, graduation and attendance rates as better indicators of district success.
Abbie Hlavacek is a software developer running for her first stint on the school board, promising to be a compassionate, dedicated and knowledgeable" member who is pro-public education.
Like Hlavacek, Katheryn Mikronis wants to serve on the board to provide better one-on-one teaching opportunities. A former business owner and grad student, Mikronis also wants to improve school funding out of Phoenix (good luck), bridge literacy gaps and improve mental health among students.
Another grad student, Mikhail Roberts, is running on what is sort of a culture warrior platform but not completely. She's earning a master's degree from Johns Hopkins, so ignorance isn't her bag. And she makes the point that "over the years, schools have organizationally isolated parents from the education of their children."
School districts can have an attitude problem, where they do take a posture akin to "teaching your kids is our job, so leave us alone." It invites some of the more rancid criticisms of people who are trying to teach "your kid," plus thousands of others in a systematic way.
So when Roberts puts parents rights in that frame ... welll ... it's always something to watch out for and defend against.
Parent involvement is good. Drywallers and lawyers micromanaging physics curriculums can be terrible for kids.
The little district that can
Flowing Wells Unified School District takes pride in itself as an overachiever that's dealing with demographics that hamstring others.
Incumbents Kristine Hammar and Kevin Daily are running to continue that reputation by focusing on the basics and financial accountability. They also each make a point of saying the district does not teach "critical race theory" and won't. That's probably because they aren't Harvard Law School, the place where it was taught and all the bruhaha started.
Brianna Hamilton is a real estate agent and the lone challenger and she's been mostly MIA in the campaign.
Hammar and Daily are pre-emptively responding to some chatter out there in the district. Hamilton's just not leaving much of an on-line footprint about much else other than homes she's trying to move.
Speaking of critical race theory, the one guy who is banking his campaign on ending critical race theory is Raul Rodriguez, running for a seat on the Vail Unified School District.
What he told the Green Valley News was interesting. He wrote to the news outlet that he intends to "Protect our children from Social and Emotional Learning curriculums that promote CRT and curriculum which has child-grooming overtures."
OK, grooming aside, Arizona's law against teaching critical race theory includes this language: "An individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress because of the individual’s race, ethnicity, or sex."
So does protecting kids feelings from the hi?tory of slavery, Jim Crow and redlining count as an "emotional-learning curriculum." Having read the statute, remind me to explain someday how the anti-critical-race-theory legislation's legal text almost requires teaching something akin to critical race theory.
So Rodriquez wants a back-to-basics approach.
He's running against a field of four other candidates, including the chillingly optimistic Amy Petersmarck. She's running on fact and data-driven decision making. She's a parent-teacher organization member, a classroom coordinator and election worker. She is short on specifics but says she's ready to put her "best foot forward" and and serve the "fantastic community" of Sahuarita.
Board member John Sparks is up for re-election and touts the district's progress on access to technology and on-line learning as achievements since being elected in 2014.
Former Winslow Unified School District Superintendent and Caterpillar training director Kathryn Zanin, is also looking for a seat on the board. She brings obvious experience but only left Winslow in 2021. She's a bit of a newcomer. She's running on moving the district away from the "Beyond Textbooks" curriculum to give teachers more classroom-level control over lessons. Beyond Textbooks is a system of learning developed over at the Vail Unified School District, which now "sells" the lesson plans to cover the cost of maintaining the program.
So let's swing over to the Vail Unified School District and see what's happening there.
Leroy Smith is running for another term on the board and is vowing to protect students from progressive agendas pushed by superintendents and unions. OK. Well. It's Vail. It's hardly the Haight-Ashbury c. 1967.
Smith is a former federal law enforcement officer, who worked with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Not to be outdone on the culture front, Anastasia Tsatsakis is running to restore Vail to its former educational glory by taking on "agenda-driven equity." What year of yore does Tsatsakis call a time when the district was doing great? 2021. That's when the district scored well on standardized tests.
Y'know. That was way back when the surface of Arizona hardened, cooled.
She does make the point that all Arizona districts have to do better since the pandemic lead to school shutdowns and distance learning, which left some students behind. That's true.
Geraldine Kleber, an ardent anti masker who questioned providing any response to coronavirus, also wants to steer the district away from being taught "what to think ideologically." She's not exactly running on a slate with the other two ideology-fighting candidates, as Smith challenged the signatures Kleber gathered to qualify for the ballot.
Edward Buster, a 20-year Air Force veteran, and Realtor Jennifer Anderson seem to be running as a team but not a slate (a slate is three candidates who can raise and spend money together). They say they want to use their experience volunteering within the district on the school board. They're basically saying they feel a duty to serve.
Does that count as non-ideological?
Without explicitly saying it, they call out as ideologues those who claim to run against ideology. Pretty tricky political communication. They have zero future in the Democratic Party.
Jayme Morris promises to bring an open mind to the board with a focus on transparency and teacher retention, along with a self-stated desire to serve.
By the way, "I'm running just to serve and don't have a massive agenda to push" is as legit as "I'm running and here's my five-point plan."
A thanks to all
It's hard to be too hard on candidates running for school boards because it's a thankless job. Most of the job is pro-forma approval of routine measures that must be done every meeting. Sexy is not how I would describe approving vouchers to the county superintendent of public instruction, sale of surplus property, accepting resignations or retirement — but this is much of a school board member's job.
That's until they step into a viper's nest.
School board members suddenly are getting snapped at by highly motivated parents enraged over anything from a mask mandate to a school closure to an audit. They have to deal with site councils, superintendents and principals, who all think they are the masters of all they survey.
They deserve combat pay. They get nothing. It's a purely volunteer position.
It's kind of the ultimate form of Madisonian democracy because board members are elected by a small number of constituents who live down the street. Radical school boards out of step with their constituents aren't long for their office.
So cut them a little bit of slack as they get their own education on how local politics can really work.
Blake Morlock is an award-winning columnist, who worked in daily journalism for nearly 20 years and is the former communications director for the Pima County Democratic Party.