Oct. 20, 2004 - When Marana Unified School District voters go to the polls Nov. 2, their ballot will include the names of six candidates, three of them incumbents, seeking the three four-year term board seats up for election. Voters will be able to simply color in the bubble next to the names of the three candidates they want elected to the board to decide that contest.
But there is a fourth seat to be decided during the election - the two years remaining to Sandi Nielson's term, who resigned in August. To decide which of six candidates seeking election to Nielson's seat, voters will have to do a little more work.
Because of the timing of Nielson's resignation, there was not enough time to legally create a second ballot question, so the election is being handled as a write-in, meaning voters will have to write the name of the candidate they want elected on the ballot, plus color in the bubble next to it - no colored bubble, no valid vote said Brad Nelson, the county director of elections.
The names of the write-in candidates will be posted at all polling places, but that is slim comfort for the six candidates, who all say they are working hard to make sure voters walk in to the polling place with their name on the voters' lips.
The following is a brief overview of each write-in candidate for the MUSD two-year term board seat.
BONNIE DEMOROTSKI: Bonnie Demorotski believes her returning to the governing board will help quell the current unrest among some employees and parents, just like she did when she was elected in 1994.
When Demorotski ran for the school board 10 years ago, the board and the teachers union were at odds over the budget and rumors ran rampant through the district about board and administrative decisions.
She said some of that was caused by inattentive and disrespectful board members. When she and Bill Kuhn were elected, joining two members currently seeking re-election, Dan Post, Jan Mitich, and Debbie Schmich in 1996, the five became a "well-oiled" machine who hired a strong superintendent, made teachers partners in the district's decisions instead of adversaries and instituted numerous programs that made the district one of the most respected in the state.
She said of her eight years on the board, one of the things she's most proud is the board and Superintendent Wade McLean working with the leadership of the Marana Education Association - the teachers union - to do away with "meet and confer" and create a more sane negotiating process.
"It was a team effort with (MEA president) Andrew Morril, Dan Post, Wade McLean, and other key people in MEA, to not have meet and confer. I thought it was barbaric to sit on opposite ends of the (negotiating) table and just scream at each other for days on end," Demorotski said.
She said her first year on the board, other board members told her to expect to get locked into the Marana High School library while a federal mediator was brought in to solve the budget impasse.
"I said, 'if you know its going to happen why aren't you doing something to prevent it?'" she said. "Sure enough, we got locked in. I said 'there's got to be a better way.'"
Since then, contract negotiations have gone smoothly in the district.
Another of her proudest accomplishments, she said, was championing the creation of Another Chance at Education, the district's alternative school for expelled or suspended students. Rather than sit at home or be on the streets and getting into trouble, students are given a strict learning environment and the opportunity to keep up with their education so that, when their suspension is over and they are allowed to return to school, they are not completely lost and end up failing, dropping out or acting out again.
"I have always championed the underdog, and who's more of an underdog than the kid you expelled from school. They have no choices. If they're on the street, they have no choice but to run drugs or turn to prostitution," she said. "We have had numerous people who have gone through our ACE program who ended up graduating, who came up to us and said, 'you know, getting kicked out of school was the best thing that ever happened to me,'" she said.
As for what she'll do for the district if she is returned to the board, she said the foremost issue is healing the division over the resignation of Superintendent Rick Lesko and the hiring of a new, strong superintendent who can move the district forward.
"We need to address some of the rumors, some of the feelings that are circulating out in the district now, there are a lot of fires that need to be put out, there's a lot of healing that needs to happen," Demorotski said.
She had nothing but praise for the current board, saying she hopes all of them are re-elected. However, she said it was most likely that the division between Lesko and the board was inevitable.
"Whenever you have somebody that's been in their position a long time and they retire … when you hire somebody to fill in, and they start making changes, everybody hates it, and they get fired," she said.
"That's the case with Rick, he was not able to make the transition. They should have hired Rick as an interim and let him feel his way through, but they didn't, they made him the real deal and he couldn't walk in Wade's shoes. He tried so desperately to make everybody think of it as Rick's way, but the pressure was so great, and he had no idea, because Wade made it look so easy, he had no idea all the decisions and all the responsibility that he had, and when he started to cave, he started to act out."
She said Lesko would have had a better chance following McLean if he had been made an interim superintendent.
"We (the school board and McLean) were a six member team. Wade understood the dynamics of the five of us. Whether he agreed with us all the time didn't matter, he provided us with all the information we needed and made himself available to us whenever there were questions or if we didn't understand why something was going on, we had answers. That broke down, obviously, with Rick, that's why it would have been helpful if Rick was interim," she said.
She said her business experience and business education will be a great help to the district in its search for a new superintendent.
Demorotski's previous service on the school board and her current candidacy are a continuation of her two decades of service to the district. She was a volunteer at Butterfield Elementary School and helped start a tutoring program there that was so successful, she was hired by the district to run it and other programs. Though she left the district's employ to be the outreach coordinator for Primavera Services, her service to the district continued with her election to the board.
She said she chose not to run for re-election in 2002 because she had an opportunity to attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, but her father's illness and subsequent death last year, along with the stress of running the financially troubled Campfire USA Tucson derailed those plans.
She's an active community volunteer with organizations such as Miracle in Marana, the Red Cross, and the Community Justice Board, a juvenile justice program run by the Pima County Attorney's Office. She was Executive Director of Campfire USA Southern Arizona Council until June, when the organization closed.
JOHN LEWANDOWSKI: John Lewandowski didn't want to run against Dan Post and Jan Mitich for Marana School board. He's known them through his eight years on the Marana school board from 1980-1988 and he didn't want to be associated with a group whose stated purpose was to remove them.
So when he was approached by "Take Back Our School District," a group of employees and parents seeking to oust Post, Mitich and fellow incumbent Debbie Schmich, he turned them down.
Instead, he chose to return to the board as a write-in candidate for the two years remaining of Sandi Nielson's term. He said his 33 years as a teacher, his eight years previous service on the board, the fact that his children all attended MUSD schools, that his daughter is a teacher in the district, that he has a grandchild attending a district school and that he was president of the Amphi Education Association - a teacher's union - gives him unique perspective and experience to help lead MUSD in a time of rapid growth and standardized testing.
He said that experience makes him well suited for dealing with the most pressing problem facing the district, growth.
"Growth is good and bad. Growth can give you more funding. But when funding doesn't keep up with growth and you have to open schools, it becomes difficult to keep the programs you have, or improve your programs," he said. "You have to keep a balance between the testing and the mandates we have without getting the funding for them, and building schools, maintaining programs and keeping a competitive salary."
He said his experience as a school board member who had to balance the needs of the entire district coupled with his experience as a union president who fought for the rights and wages of teachers, allows him to see the financial issues of growth with deeper perspective and gives him a greater level of credibility with teachers, administrators and parents.
Other issues affecting the district include a need for improved communication between the board, the public and employees; making sure the district's focus on Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards, the states' mandated test to chart student progress, is in the elementary schools so that students are not still trying to acquire the skills necessary to pass the test in high school; and enhancing and creating programs that serve non-college bound students.
He said he doesn't know enough about what happened between the board and Superintendent Rick Lesko to offer an opinion as to whether it was the right thing to do, but said, clearly, there was breakdown in communication, which continues in the district today as rumors about what happened to Lesko and why, who the next superintendent will be and other more salacious suppositions by staff run rampant. He said it's important the newly elected board, no matter its makeup, do everything it can to rebuild trust, as cooperation between all the district's so-called "stake holders" will be vital for continued success dealing with problems such as growth and AIMS.
Lewandowski is a teacher at Coronado Middle School in the Amphi district, where's he's taught for 20 years. He's lived in MUSD for 27 years and all three of his children attended MUSD schools. Education is all in the Lewandowski family as his three children are also teachers, with a daughter teaching at Marana Middle School, a daughter teaching at Flowing Wells Middle School and a son teaching at an elementary school in California. His wife is a counselor at CDO High School.
RICK MCATEE: Rick McAtee is a believer in planning. He said if elected to the Marana school board, he will make sure the district has a plan, no matter what the issue, that will guide the district through the difficult thicket of public education.
He said plans must be more than a road map, they must also identify the problem, the solution for the problem, the defined goals the plan is seeking to achieve, and ways to measure whether the plan is working and on track.
Without that, he said the opportunity for misunderstandings and failures in communication increase, distracting the district from its primary goal, the education of children.
A case in point being the current hoopla in the district over the resignation of Superintendent Rick Lesko in July. He identified the selection of the district's new superintendent as one of the most important decisions the new board will make in the coming year and said it was important the public fully understand how the selection process will take place and the criteria that will be used to determine who will become the superintendent.
The hiring takes on added importance, he said, because the new superintendent will be the focus of the district's plan for dealing with explosive growth in North Marana, one of the most pressing problems the district will face in coming years.
McAtee was a teacher for 17 years, including three years in MUSD teaching at Thornydale Elementary, before starting his own education consulting firm, Turning a New Page. As a consultant, he travels the country and sees how different districts handle similar problems, including searching for superintendents, and he said the knowledge he's gained from those observations can be a benefit to MUSD.
He also points to his business knowledge as an important asset for making the business and budget decisions of the district, and adds that his business also gives him unique perspective on educational theory and choosing effective curricula.
He said he's a full supporter of AIMS, but believes the focus of the district's plan is misplaced, saying it should be on the primary school slevel rather than high schools, so that students' weaknesses are identified and strengthened early and not when they are in high school when time to learn and overcome them is short.
He is vice president of the Marana Foundation for Educational Excellence and volunteers at Thornydale.
SHERRY NATIONS: Sherry Nations has always been an involved parent. Her two children have both attended Quail Run Elementary School, with one now attending Tortolita Middle School, and she's been active as a parent volunteer at both schools. But now she wants to take an even more active role in how her children are educated.
"I don't' have any issues with the school board that is currently in place. (Running for the board) is something I want to do to have a more lasting impact on my children and their education," she said.
She said running for the two-year term is a good opportunity for her to "get my feet wet and see if the public likes me doing what I'm doing."
She and her husband moved to the Marana district three years ago. She's lived in Michigan, Indiana and Mississippi and said she hopes to bring ideas, perspectives and programs from the educational systems in those states to MUSD.
Among her ideas is extending the school day. She said her children spent seven to seven and half hours a day in school in Michigan, while in Arizona it is generally less than six and a half hours.
The major issues she thinks the board will address in the next two years are growth, hiring a new superintendent and finding ways to ease the standardized testing burden on teachers imposed by the state and federal governments.
She said she doesn't have an opinion as to which of the six candidates running for four-year term seats she would like to see elected, though she qualified that by saying she doesn't like to see politicians hold an office for years and years yet on the other hand, she doesn't like to see candidates for office who are being motivated by one issue.
She said voters should write her name in the ballot because she's an involved parent, was an employee of the district, has new ideas from different states and has an accounting background that will provide important insight to the budget.
CHAD RIESTER: Chad Riester said he has always aspired to public service and sees the two-year term on the Marana school board as a great way to begin that service.
"I have 4-year-old that's going to be in that school district in a very, very short time and I caught a lot of the turmoil that went on in the last three or four months with the superintendent, and now the impending superintendent search, and I wanted to be part of it," he said.
"I have a background in problem solving. Right now I have the feeling that there are two sides and I'm not sure that's a healthy state for the school board to be in.
"It doesn't make me feel comfortable to have any one group take over a school board. You need to have those checks and balances," he said.
Like all of the six write-in candidates, Riester identified the new superintendent search, growth and testing as the major issues the new board will face in the next two years.
"I've always valued my teachers, which is kind of why I've gotten into youth development myself. I value what kind of education my child's going to get and I want to see our teachers feel like they have a good situation in the district and they feel like we want to retain them," Riester said.
As the youngest candidate running in the election, he said he will bring a different perspective to the board as a father with a young child who has yet to start at MUSD schools, rather than board members whose children have already graduated from the district or whose children are in district middle and high schools.
Riester's job is a real estate agent but he's also the executive director of Swim Tucson, a club swimming team he founded, and is the varsity swimming coach at Canyon del Oro High School.
He is a Tucson native and a graduate of CDO.
ALBERT SIQUIEROS: If any candidate in the MUSD school board election has an insider's perspective to the district, it would be Albert Siquieros who ended seven years as principal of Estes Elementary in June.
He said he's running for the school board to use that knowledge along with 23 years as a teacher and principal to help make sure the school board makes decisions that "are best for the students of the Marana school district."
When he was hired in 1997 as principal of Estes, he said he believed the board made those kinds of decisions. But one of the reasons he's running for a seat on the board is because he believes the "culture" of the board has changed.
"When I first came to Marana, I really had a high level of appreciation for the things that were occurring on all levels, from administrative to the school level down to instruction in the classrooms. As time progressed, the culture began to change and I'm not sure why," he said.
"It became an environment by which it was more of them versus us, and by them I mean the school board. Decisions were made that did not take into consideration input from key stake holders, which included the staff, and parents."
He gave as an example the decision four years ago to switch the district's report card to one that more closely resembled the state standards the students and schools were being evaluated with.
"The standards report card was not a process that occurred in a manner consistent with what quality education is all about," Siquieros said. "You develop a process to make effective decisions that include some research, that includes best practices, that includes talking to people, that includes pilot programs; and that decision was made without all those things occurring. And when you do that, you make mistakes. The end product is not as effective as it should be.
"For three or four consecutive years students and parents in Marana have had three different versions of the standards report. If we would have done it right the first time, and done a pilot and corrected the errors and mistakes, we would have provided a better product to teachers and parents."
Siquieros is being supported by Take Back Our School District, a group of parents and district employees whose stated goal is to replace the three incumbents running for re-election, Dan Post, Debbie Schmich and Janice Mitich. The group was formed after the board forced the resignation of popular superintendent Rick Lesko.
Changing the culture lies partly with changing the board, and partly with who is selected as the new superintendent, Siquieros said.
"The new leader of the district should be someone with strong leadership and listening skills who can apply those skills in a very diverse community," he said. Additionally, they must "be extremely knowledgeable in current educational practices," and have an "effective knowledge and understanding of budgeting and finances. That's going to be a key, key factor in our district over the coming years."
Because he is a school principal and has a doctorate in educational leadership, he said he thinks he will be able to provide valuable insight in the superintendent selection process.
Siquieros is principal of Smith Elementary in the Tucson school district and has a child attending Marana High School. His three older children have all attended Marana schools, as well.
He grew up in Yuma and has taught in the Sunnyside and Yuma school districts.