Oct. 20, 2004 - Debbie Schmich views her role on the Marana Unified School District governing board as the bridge between parent organizations and district administration.
She said she and the four other board members, Janice Mitich, Dan Post, Bill Kuhn and Sandi Nielson - before Nielson resigned at the end of August - represented the union of five different viewpoints in the district.
"I feel like I represent the parents," Schmich said. "I'm very involved with the different PTOs, and, in just the last two years, I've been working very hard with the PTOs as a liaison between the district and the parent citizen organizations."
She admitted this with reluctance, though. Schmich was not ready to rattle off her accomplishments as a board member. She said that's not why she ran for the board eight years ago. She did it to contribute to a district that's given a lot to her three sons.
Schmich's second term on the board expires at the end of this year. Currently she and the other two board members who've reached the end or their term, Mitich and Post, are running for re-election. The incumbents face three challengers, Mel Kaster, Maribel Lopez and Patricia Teager (see stories pages 9, 10 and 11).
The current board came under criticism for its acceptance of the resignation of popular superintendent Rick Lesko. Many in the district have said that action was not in the best interest of the students and that board members did not provide proper justification for his resignation.
Board members maintain they can reveal no further details surrounding Lesko's resignation because, at Lesko's request, the negotiations between him and the board were conducted in session's closed to the public.
The fallout from that decision was so severe that a group of parents, faculty and students with the motto "Take Back Our School District," looked to oust the current board. The group supports the three candidates challenging the incumbents.
Schmich said when she made the decision to accept Lesko's resignation she did not expect it to generate so much controversy.
"My main job as a board member is to represent the students and the community, because they elected me, and I needed to make the best decision for those people," Schmich said. "And (accepting Lesko's resignation) was my decision. I was not anticipating quite the uproar. I did know he was a very popular person, I was very well aware of that. But I had to go with knowing I was empowered to make the best decision for the students and the employees of the district, and that's what I did, and that's what I hope to continue to do."
One of Schmich's challengers, Kaster, has said the current board seems unapproachable by many parents. Others have said board members are out of touch with their constituency. This is an argument Schmich said hits particularly close to home for her, because she spends a lot of her time volunteering in the classroom.
"I have a hard time with that because for the last two years I have visited a classroom at least twice a month," she said. "And that's not counting the other times when I am there either reading, volunteering, or judging one of their classroom projects."
She's contributed much of her time to Mountain View High School, where her three sons, Brandon, Brodie and Brenton, attended. At Mountain View she is a member of the Parent Resource Organization and she is the chairperson of the monthly parent/staff breakfast.
Mountain View Associate Principal Jill Atlas said when Schmich volunteers, she does not come across as a board member, instead Schmich works hard in donating her time to the school as a parent.
"We've come to count on her contributions enormously through the years," Atlas said.
Schmich was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. She moved to Tucson in 1985 and has been a resident of MUSD for the past 19 years. She's carried her love of NASCAR with her and still enjoys watching the cars race on weekends. She currently works as a secretary and office manager for a tax preparation firm in Tucson.
She said the best way for the board to ensure controversy does not re-emerge with the selection of the next superintendent is to keep the community involved in the process.
Board members selected J. Robert Hendricks, a dean in the College of Educational Leadership at the University of Arizona, as the consultant to lead the superintendent search at a Sept. 28 meeting. Hendricks said he would like to include community input in the process, but the final decision rests with the board.
Schmich said the board can use information compiled by the community to see what characteristics for which both the board and the public are looking.
From there the board and the consultant can create a profile and distribute applications for the next superintendent.
The district also now must prepare students for the AIMS - Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards - examinations.
The class of 2006 will be the first class required to pass the test in order to receive high school diplomas. Schmich said the district has already made progress to ensure students will pass AIMS.
"I think at all the individual schools each principal has their own ideas, their own thoughts, and I think they're doing a great job," Schmich said. "So other than (the board) just giving them support, looking toward curriculum management and making sure they're keeping up with everything, and knowing that the schools are doing remedial and offering programs for after school tutoring - I think if they just continue with those kind of programs that we're really OK."
Students now take the test more seriously than they did in the past when it was not a requirement of graduation, Schmich said. She added that students were taken on a "roller coaster ride" when they didn't know whether or not they would need to pass the test to graduate. Schmich said she worries more about students at other districts that haven't taken as many steps to ensure its students will pass the exam.
Another issue is the different levels of performance in the district's elementary schools. Each year the Arizona Department of Education issues a report card to all the schools in the state. This report card includes the rating from the state's Arizona LEARNS program, which designates profiles of excelling, highly performing, performing or underperforming. According to the Arizona School Report Card 2003-04, Arizona LEARNS rated Butterfield Elementary as highly performing and Estes elementary as performing. Schmich said the board hires the best possible administrators available to reduce the gaps in performance in schools across the district. She provided the movement of Principal Rocco Sugameli from Butterfield Elementary School to Estes Elementary as an example that could help the performance at Estes. Sugameli promoted parent involvement and student pride at Butterfield, attributes that could enhance the learning environment at Estes.
She said the board also encourages to district principals to "think outside the box." Because budget limitations restrict the resources to each school, Schmich said she tells principals to reach out to the community and encourage parents to volunteer in the classroom. When a teacher has a creative way to teach students, but that idea falls outside the district's budget, she encourages teachers or their principals to apply for mini-grants from the Marana Foundation for Educational Excellence. Schmich, who is a board member on Marana Foundation, said the organization has contributed more than $57,000 to the schools since 1992.
If Schmich retains her seat, she said she would want to be remembered as a board member who served her district fairly. She said if she's stopped by a parent as she makes her way through her day, she'll talk to that parent and try to address their concerns.
"I just do my best for the students in the district and the employees," Schmich said. "That's my main goal, and that's what I tried to do the last eight years."