Aug. 11, 2004 - The upcoming Marana Unified School District governing board election heated up last week when three Marana residents filed the necessary paperwork to join the race.
Six candidates now vie for the three seats on the school board up for election on Nov. 2. Board members serve staggered four year terms with no limit to the number of times they can be re-elected. This year Board President Janice Mitich and board members Dan Post and Debbie Schmich have reached the end of their term and are seeking re-election.
Mel Kaster, Maribel Lopez and Patricia Teager will challenge the incumbents and are endorsed by a group of Northwest residents angered by the July 13 resignation of former Superintendent Rick Lesko. The group, whose motto is "take back our school district," has made the replacement of the current governing board their objective.
"We know they (the school board) have done a lot of good things," said Betty Tankersley, a district teacher and organizer of the opposition against the current board. "But there were also a lot of things they overlooked."
Tankersley chose not to elaborate on issues ignored by the school board. She said now is not the time to dwell on the past. Instead, the district should move forward with new leadership.
Regardless of the election, at least one of the current board members will not serve the district next year. Sandi Nielson confirmed that she would soon be moving out of the Marana area and would give the county notice of her resignation from the board in August, leaving her position open in September.
Susan Hankinson, the elections administrative assistant for the Pima County School Superintendent, said in that case, County Superintendent Linda Arzoumanian could make an appointment, leave the position open or allow voters to write-in candidates in the November election as long as those candidates had filed nomination and campaign finance forms by Sept. 23. However, Hankinson said she could not indicate any specific action until the county superintendent receives Nielson's written resignation.
The board members who will stay said they are not sure that this is the right time to break up a board with years of experience working together. Post has served on the governing board for 24 years. He said some members of the public are reacting strongly to the board's acceptance of Lesko's resignation and people should know the board is not intentionally withholding information. Because Lesko's evaluation was held in a closed session, he said the board is restricted by law from revealing additional details surrounding his resignation.
"People tend to be disinterested until there's some issue that personally affects them," Post said. "We can go through years with hardly anybody showing up at the meetings, just employees, until there's an issue that either affects them or their child personally and then all of a sudden they get interested and excited."
He said while some people may have disagreed with the board's decision regarding Lesko, in the past board members have made several decisions that benefitted the district.
"I think that the public in general will see that this board - at least four members of this board - have been together for years and they've accomplished some great things," Post said. "We have a great school district. We're in great condition financially, we have adequate schools physically, we've remodeled our schools, we've built gymnasiums, swimming pools and new schools. We have award winning teachers and A+ schools recognized by the state."
Kaster, a parent in the district who was motivated to run for the school board, acknowledged the board's achievements, but said it needs to return its focus to the children. It also should be accountable to public scrutiny, she said.
"I think they've forgotten what they're there for," she said. "They are there for the children and our children need stuff they're not providing."
She said the board should do more to benefit students who don't achieve at the top level.
"School is not just for straight 'A' students and if students need extra help they should get it," Kaster said.
Teager has been a Marana resident for five years and an active volunteer in the community. She co-founded the charity "Golf for Kids," which raises money for Marana schools, and has tutored at Estes Elementary School since 2000. She said in this election it's important that MUSD residents have a choice for their representation on the school board.
"With new leadership comes fresh insight and new ideas and an opportunity for additional input," she said.
While the current board has years of experience in forming districtwide policy, she said a new board could quickly learn how to create policy, just as this board did when it first came together. She said it's important that the public support the decisions of the school board.
"Without question I would say one of the primary concerns is to restore the confidence and the public trust in the governing board," Teager said.
Lopez said she decided to run for the school board because of her passion for children. She was an educator for nine years and currently works for Drexel Elementary in the Sunnyside Unified School District where she is the Title I project facilitator. Title I provides financial assistance through state educational agencies to public schools with large percentages of children from low-income families. Lopez's job also involves helping teachers, she said.
Lopez said one of her major concerns is the district's budget. She does not understand how the board can afford to lose one high-payed official and then quickly hire another one. Board members maintain that MUSD is in a financially sound position.
Mitich, who has served on the board for 16 years, said she would support a forum where the public could meet all six candidates at one time so district voters could make an informed decision. Tankersley said her group was already planning to meet with the press. Although a situation with opposing candidates greeting the public had never occurred in previous elections, she had no concerns about such an event. Still, a venue where opposing candidates would meet the public and possibly answer questions would be up to the candidates themselves, she said.
Kaster said she is not interested in engaging in political debate with the current board members. Teager said dialogue between candidates is not uncommon in political situations, although it had not happened in previous board elections. She acknowledged that this governing board election differed from ones in the past and said she would not be opposed to an organized meeting of all six candidates depending on who sponsored it.
With respect to the November election, the final decision of which three candidates will serve on the governing board for the next four years rests on the shoulders of the public, Tankersley said.
"We don't know how it's going to turn out, but whoever's going to be on the board is going to see a lot more public scrutiny," Tankersley said.