A 50-Point Blueprint for Improving TUSD

If re-elected, Mark will improve the Tucson Unified School District in a variety of ways, including; efficiency, organization, standards, and community involvement. Below is a partial list of changes that the new Board should help to bring to TUSD.
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Money and efficiency

  • Set a floor on the share of funds that must be spent in the classroom. TUSD spends about 50% of its revenues in the classroom, while other large Arizona districts achieve 56-60%.  The Board recently rejected my proposal to increase TUSD’s percentage to 55% over three years, but it will come back.

  • Adopt simple, clear, and consistent policies concerning the use of desegregation funds.  This must be done under the guidance of the federal court and with greater respect for the court’s rulings than TUSD has shown in the past.  Amazingly, the Board has never adopted a clear policy for the use of desegregation funds.  I have advocated such a policy for years and expect to succeed eventually.

  • Implement an effective system of asset control.  TUSD’s audit committee has been concerned about asset control for years, and the district’s external audits show clear deficiencies in current practices.  Inadequate controls have led to major losses of electronic and other equipment.

  • Reduce procurement costs by improvements in policies and practice. I have saved TUSD millions of dollars by recommending bids and rebids of overpriced contracts, but this should happen routinely without Board member intervention.  Policy changes could lead to systematically better procurement practices.

  • Consider turning small or poorly performing schools into district-run charters.  Charter schools get $1,000+ more per student after their first year of operation, which may make it possible to adopt more flexible rules and keep some smaller schools open.  Charter school proposals should be developed through discussions with TUSD’s labor groups, because schools that disappear offer no jobs to anyone.

  • Hire an internal auditor.  This position, which has been recommended for years by TUSD’s audit committee, would more than pay for itself by improving the district’s financial and property controls.

  • Reform the budget creation process, to increase transparency and public input.  The entire district budget, including the desegregation budget, should be online in a way that ordinary people can understand it.  Public hearings should occur long before the adoption of the budget.  The monthly budget report to the Board should be reinstated.

  • Adopt best practices for land transactions, as employed by other large public entities.  TUSD has unusually loose policies governing land transactions and has a history (mostly before the current Board) of approving deals that may not have protected taxpayer interests.  I have pressed for the Board to adopt an approved list of appraisers and other standard best practices.

  • Welcome bids from charter and private schools for the reuse of closed schools.  TUSD’s schools were designed to be schools, and in some cases an offer from a charter or private school may be the best option financially and for the neighborhood.  Refusing use of our sites usually does not prevent a school from opening; it merely pushes it to another site.

  • Reduce taxpayer-funded travel.  Guidelines for such travel should be tighter, and out-of-state travel by Board members should end.

  • Close schools.  Declining enrollment means that school closures belong in any plan for increasing the efficiency of TUSD’s operations, but they are not a panacea.  Smaller schools have advantages and disadvantages, and recent research highlights the advantages of small schools.  Preserving or returning to small schools has been an important part of some districts’ (e.g. New York) successful reform efforts.  School closures are part of the strategy for making TUSD more efficient, but they should be done carefully and at a pace which increases the likelihood of families’ successful transitions.

  • Place more emphasis on quality and less on quantity, in personnel practices.  The educational mission is built around teachers and principals, the district’s on-site managers.  Support staff play essential roles (a school cannot operate without a janitor), but TUSD often compensates for shortcomings in teachers and principals by hiring support personnel, sometimes in great quantity.  A more consistent focus on quality in teachers and principals would reduce the need for support personnel.  Monies freed from support positions can be reinvested in teachers and smaller classes.

  • Use more efficient districts as benchmarks.  TUSD should review all operational areas in which costs appear to exceed the benchmarks set by efficient districts and adopt the habit of studying other districts’ best practices.  We should do a comprehensive business process analysis, looking at the functions performed by central administration and how they can best be accomplished.  Zero-based budgeting is implicit in this approach.

Curriculum and Standards

  • Reemphasize educational basics such as reading, writing, science, and mathematics but also preserve a broad education.  A broad education includes arts, physical activity, civics and government, vocational education, and basic life skills.  It is also important for high school social studies and literature courses to expose all students to a wide range of cultures and historical perspectives.  Preserving all of these things will require directing more money into the classroom.

  • End the culture of passing students from grade to grade regardless of achievement.  Students respond to high expectations; when we set low expectations we abandon our responsibilities and set students up for failure later in school and in life.  Therefore, social promotion from grade to grade, regardless of achievement, should be progressively curtailed, starting at the early grades.  To help students through such a policy change, TUSD must give families early information about expectations for achievement, early notification of potential problems, and early support for students who are falling behind the achievement that is appropriate for their age.  The Board recently rejected my modest proposals to begin to end the culture of social promotion, but this issue will come back.  

  • Adopt a promotion standard for 3d-grade mathematics.  The state is starting to require that students who fall far below the state’s 3d-grade reading standard be retained until they meet that standard.  TUSD students’ achievement is especially weak in mathematics, and the Board should lead the state by requiring that most students pass a similar standard in mathematics before advancing to 4th-grade.  Because the goal is to educate rather than retain, such a requirement requires more training in mathematics instruction for elementary teachers and extra help for students who need it.

  • Eliminate the explicit policy of allowing grades for participation.  The Board recently adopted (by a 4-1 vote; I was opposed) an open-ended policy of allowing teachers to award grades for participation, contrary to the guidance of the Arizona School Boards Association.  This policy should be changed to restrict the practice of giving credit for participation.  The Board should also adopt consistent cross-district grading standards, to prevent episodes such as Pueblo High School’s controversial and quickly rescinded mandate to award a score of at least 50% on any assignment.

Organization of school sites

  • Support high academic and behavioral standards.  We should support teachers who uphold high academic and behavioral standards and principals who provide that support.  It is critical, at the same time, to have safeguards to ensure that the same standards are applied to all students.

  • Reduce class sizes at the early grades.  Smaller elementary class sizes should be one of our highest priorities for funds released by savings elsewhere.  Families consider class size when choosing their children’s first school, and future academic success depends on not falling behind in the early years.

  • Rethink principals’ recruitment, selection, authority, evaluation, compensation, and retention.  This discussion should occur in collaboration with principals, who are the district’s most important administrators.  The radical differences among apparently similar schools’ climate and performance are often due to their principals.  Getting excellent principals into as many schools as possible is the single most important task of central administration.

  • Broaden and strengthen teacher recruitment efforts.  I met with Teach for America in Phoenix weeks after joining the Board, to try to restart its old effort to establish a presence in Tucson.  This effort failed, as before, because of insufficient local interest.  TUSD needs new strategies for recruiting or providing incentives to teachers in math, science, special education, and other hard-to-fill positions.  It is also important to hire teachers with more training in the content they teach.

  • Hire teachers earlier.   For reasons related to procedures in the Human Resources Dept., the teachers’ contract, and district culture, TUSD hires most of its teachers later than other school districts (sometimes much later).  This puts TUSD out of the running for some of the best teachers and leads to too many long term substitutes in classrooms at the start of the school year.

  • Increase marketing support for individual schools.  Families choose mainly a school, not a school district, and each school has a different story to tell.  Marketing support should include better school websites that use a consistent and consumer-friendly template. 

  • Provide adequate textbooks and classroom and laboratory supplies.  Each classroom should have as many textbooks as students.  It should not be necessary for teachers to spend their own money on routine supplies.

  • Increase preschool and after school options.  Especially for children whose parents work, it is important to have pre-school and after-school options.  Many external resources exist to help organize and fund such options for families who cannot afford them.

  • Give schools greater control over resource allocation.  Central administration has an essential role in establishing a consistent curriculum and academic standards, but principals (with the help of site councils) are best situated to judge their own schools’ needs.  The counterpart to this discretion is implementation of a rigorous annual process for evaluating various aspects of school performance.  Schools also need incentives to operate more efficiently, for example by reducing utility bills.  Finally, a school’s funding should vary smoothly with enrollment and not take a big jump (as can occur under the current formula) because one more student enrolls.

  • End forced transfers of teachers during the first few weeks of school.  A small reserve fund would be sufficient to end the practice of removing teachers from schools that have unexpectedly low enrollment.  District-initiated transfers of teachers and administrators, from school to school, erode principals’ authority and accountability and should be generally curtailed.

  • Ask students and families for performance commitments.  TUSD should encourage students to enroll in TUSD schools other than their home school, but if there is a waiting list for the school or if the student plans to use district busing then we should consider asking the student or student’s parents, as appropriate, to agree to attend regularly, complete assignments, and meet with teachers when necessary. 

  • Make fundamental changes in middle schools.  All of TUSD’s middle schools except Dodge, which is rated “A,” are currently rated “C” or “D” by the state.  Options for improving this situation include school consolidation and reorganization, moving Dodge to a larger site or creating another school on the Dodge model, and conversions to K-8 schools.

Community

  • Create a volunteer database.  One of TUSD’s greatest assets is the individuals, businesses, non-profit organizations who want to help, even without compensation.  We should make this path easier and less bureaucratic.  Creating a database of volunteers would help to match them to schools and departments that have specific needs.

  • Invite greater community use of school sites.  Parents’ involvement in school is important for their children’s education, especially in elementary school.  It is impossible to force parents to get involved, but bringing more community activities into the schools can help to create these connections and also make more efficient use of school space.  Such activities can include sports, clubs, health clinics, adult education, community meetings, etc.

  • Increase connections to the University of Arizona.  Proximity to UA is a great asset.  TUSD gets great value from UA through isolated initiatives, but much more could be done.  The UA and its staff have a great interest in TUSD’s success.

  • Hold more public hearings and town halls.  The Board should make greater use of public hearings and town halls to get input and encourage community discussion of school issues. 

  • Strengthen the School Community Partnership Council (SCPC).  The SCPC is designed to create direct and informal interaction among teachers, parents, and administrators, but it has recently suffered from low participation and a minor role.  More frequent attendance by Board members at its monthly meetings could make the SCPC more effective.

  • Use a larger meeting space when necessary.   I have long pushed for the preparation of a larger meeting space which could be used when a big crowd is expected.  Staff has resisted this on the grounds that security arrangements would be too complicated and expensive, but other public entities have solved this problem and I believe that so can TUSD.

Role of the Board and Administration

  • Restore the Board to a position of leadership on major district-wide issues.  The traditional Board roles are to set policy, provide leadership on major district issues, represent community interests, and exercise oversight when things go badly.  TUSD’s Board, up through present, has often slighted those responsibilities.  The traditional chain of command, from the electorate to the Board, and from the Board to the staff, needs to be strengthened.  

  • Maintain civil and professional behavior among district leadership.  Discussion should be focused on schools and policies, not personalities.

  • Recruit more diverse experience and knowledge into TUSD’s upper administration.  Upper administration should include persons with diverse backgrounds beyond educational  administration, including business experience and greater knowledge of the content we teach (especially math and science).

  • Require administrators on the academic side to spend time in the classroom.  The common and sometimes correct perception that central office administrators lose touch with the classroom realities should be mitigated by requiring occasional service in the classroom, for example as substitutes.

  • Review and reform the mission of the Board office.  The operations of the Board office should be reviewed, to improve efficiency and constituent service.  Minutes of Board meetings should be posted more rapidly; the delay between a meeting and the posting of its minutes has recently been as long as five months.  I hope that initiatives to improve the operation of the Board office will soon be resurrected.

  • Improve the process for superintendent searches.  Choosing the superintendent is the Board’s greatest single decision and should receive more time and attention than has been true through TUSD’s last several searches.  (That is not a comment on the search outcomes.)  After several transitional superintendents, the search for the next and ideally long term superintendent is critical for TUSD’s long term success.  The search should be national, with local and national candidates receiving equal consideration.

Miscellaneous

  • Focus on attracting students back to TUSD.   “Right-sizing” TUSD has become a code word for shrinking it.  We should instead focus on attracting back the approximately 30% of the students who live in TUSD but enroll in other districts or in often mediocre charter schools and also attracting back the families who now deliberately choose to live outside TUSD.  The right size for TUSD is larger; while our goals must be realistic, accepting continual shrinkage means that we have accepted the lower performance standards that produce continuing loss of enrollment.

  • Rethink the school calendar.  Since joining the Board I have pushed for serious rethinking of the school calendar, toward changes that can help families and create better opportunities to help students who need extra help and for professional development.  Potential changes include: ending the Wednesday early out and doing professional development in longer blocks on occasional Fridays; later morning starts for high schools; more block scheduling in high schools; a year-round calendar similar to that used by the Vail district; and adopting the calendar a year in advance. 

  • Considering lengthening the school day.  By statute, lengthening the instructional day by 10% would increase state revenues by $11-12 million.  This could increase student achievement, provide funds to raise teachers’ salaries, and support schools’ other direct needs.

  • Evaluate customer service rigorously.  Merely talking about better customer service is insufficient.  To ensure improvement, TUSD should use random spot checks by secret shoppers and provide regular opportunities for families and other stakeholders to rate the service they have received.  It may make sense to hire, at least for the short term, an ombudsman to help families to navigate the system and to help the district to understand where its weaknesses are.

  • Negotiate greater flexibility in labor contracts.  TUSD’s contracts, including especially its teachers’ contract, contain rigidities and complexities that raise costs and reduce the district’s capacity to offer the best instruction.  In many cases these rigidities do not even do much to help employees.  To preserve jobs, TUSD must continue to negotiate for more flexible contracts, while preserving important protections against arbitrary or retaliatory actions by administrators.

  • Make greater use of TUSD’s online instruction.  TUSD loses millions of dollars in state revenue because its students take many online courses from external providers, even though the district has in Agave its own strong online curriculum.  The district can regain revenue and improve instruction by investing in Agave and bringing students back to its own online courses.

  • Explore options to help students to access online resources at home.  Student achievement could improve greatly if students did more learning outside of the classroom.  Part of the problem is that students can rarely bring textbooks home (an issue in itself), and part of the solution may be improving students’ home access to online resources.  For students who already have online access, this means directing them to appropriate online resources, educating parents in those resources, and giving students incentives to use them.  For other students, TUSD should study strategies that other districts have used to issue laptops to students while reducing the risks of lost and damaged equipment.

  • Make better use of TUSD’s television channel.   TUSD’s cable television station, which does not even publish its programming schedule, is an unusual and underused resource.  The opportunity to put educational programming, TUSD events, and TUSD students on television is a potentially valuable selling point. As for other district projects, TUSD should either find ways to get better value out of the television channel or end it.

  • Learn from others.  TUSD should systematically review the best educational practices of other districts and the conclusions of high quality educational research.  The recent emphasis on education reform has produced many experiments to study and better research than was available a few years ago.