Incumbent candidates for the Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District governing board touted recent student achievement and district cohesiveness during their opening statements at a candidate forum at Rio Rico High School last Thursday. And during a subsequent question-and-answer session, current board chair Harry Clapeck was circumspect in discussing a recent rise in teacher attrition and the need to retain and recruit highly qualified educators, while fellow incumbent Brian Vandervoet downplayed the attrition rate and took exception to a question about impediments to student success.

Their challengers for two open four-year seats on the board, Ramon Gustavo Lopez and Maria Neuman, focused on the importance not only of retaining teachers, but of keeping students in the district from jumping ship for schools in Nogales.

Lopez, whose background is in sales and customer service at businesses such as the Nogales International and Horne Ford, told the audience in his opening remarks that he is a “concerned parent” of two children who attend SCVUSD schools. “I want to help our kids stay in our district and make our district better,” he said.

Neuman touted her 37 years living in the district and more than 28 years working in education, a career she began as a substitute teacher at SCVUSD.

Since then, Neuman said, she has been a classroom teacher, site administrator and grants coordinator. She is a University of Arizona graduate and has a master’s in education and educational leadership, she said.

A third challenger, Norma Martinez, did not attend the forum.

Meanwhile, Victor Fontes and John Hays, the two candidates for a two-year board seat that became available when Rosie Simpson resigned in the middle of her four-year term last summer, spoke of the need for parents to be more involved in their children’s education.

Hays, who works as the county’s floodplain coordinator, spoke of the insight he’s gained as a parent of two SCVUSD students, one of whom graduated last year from RRHS. Fontes, a civil engineer, noted that he previously served eight years on the Nogales Unified School District governing board, and said he now has “the time and interest” to serve on the SCVUSD board.

Question 1

In his opening remarks, Clapeck, who was appointed to a board seat in 2006 and elected to a full term in 2008, stressed the need to help young learners through efforts like all-day kindergarten and programs to help them achieve third-grade reading standards.

He also noted the importance of good financial planning and having a cohesive governing board.

“If you want something done, it’s a team event. And I think this board that we have right now runs very well together,” he said.

Vandervoet, who was first elected in 2000 and is seeking a fourth term on the board, also stressed the importance of primary education, saying it “should be the foremost issue in the district.” He pointed to recent test results and said: “We have been very successful in improving the reading and literacy skills of our students.”

He added: “Our district is very fortunate to have a very stable administration and faculty.”

Moderator Manuel C. Coppola, editor and publisher of the Nogales International, noted Vandervoet’s assertion about stability when he asked candidates about a recent spate of teacher resignations, and what they would do to keep teachers from leaving.

In his response, Vandervoet said that “the number of teachers that left our district last year were only a very few percentage points more than the normal attrition rate. I feel that further research by the local press would show that.”

He said the fact that several “headline” teachers departed at the end of the 2011-12 academic year is what led to increased concern over the issue. “Again, the number of teachers that left last year (was) not really that much more than ever before.”

A story published in the June 5 edition of the Nogales International titled “RRHS, district suffer jump in teacher resignations” cited SCVUSD data showing that 32 teachers in the district resigned at the end of the 2011-12 academic year, more than twice the number that resigned at the end of 2010-11. At Rio Rico High School, 15 teachers resigned at the end of the last school year, up from six the previous year. The number of SCVUSD teachers who resigned held steady at three. (See sidebar for more attrition-related data.)

Other candidates at Thursday’s forum expressed greater concern about the SCVUSD and RRHS attrition rates.

“For a high school of this size, 17 to me, should be of concern to everybody,” Fontes said in an apparent reference to the number of teachers who left the 59-member high school faculty at the end of the last year: 15 via resignation and two more through retirement.

Fontes said administrators should conduct candid, in-depth interviews with departing teachers to find out their reasons for leaving. “I hope that happened,” he said.

Hays said he had spoken with several departing teachers, including some of his son’s former teachers at the high school.

“Some of it was economic. Some of them felt that they weren’t getting a fair shake from the administration at all levels. A number of them expressed concern that this high school in the previous four years went through four different principals,” he said.

“If you’re losing your good teachers, not necessarily the bad ones, but you’re losing the headline teachers, the ones that inspire the students to do better… we have to do better as a board, making sure that we take care of the teachers first, the administration second,” Hays said.

Turnover is expensive because it costs the district money to train new teachers, Lopez said, adding: “I believe that a lot of these teachers left for reasons that may not have been in the control of the board. Salary increases is a big topic, (as is) the lack of administration support for some of these teachers. If we have a core team, constant, and everybody gets their fair shake, we can move our district forward.”

Neuman stressed the need for a committee to whom district employees can bring their concerns and grievances. “I believe that the root cause that teachers have left this district is quite simple: they do not feel valued,” she said, adding: “Changes are necessary to retain good staff.”

Resignations result from events that the school board can control, but also from others that it can’t, Clapeck said, noting that rising gas prices have made it difficult for teachers to commute from Tucson, while other teachers have simply decided to leave the profession.

“There are some people,” he added, “that don’t like the way the district is going in trying to improve the quality of education for our children. We need good quality teachers, we need to instruct them on how to do that, and if they can’t do that, they just might not like it here.”

Clapeck pointed to Proposition 204, a ballot measure that would make the state’s one-cent education sales tax permanent, as a way to get more funding into the district and to encourage teachers to stay. “We owe these teachers a lot of money for what they do. And that will help us out a lot.”

Pressed by Coppola as to what he would do to retain teachers, Vandervoet, who also urged voters to support Prop. 204 during his opening remarks, replied: “I would try to increase their salaries. They haven’t had a raise in five years.”

Question 2

Vandervoet expressed displeasure with the forum’s second question, which asked the candidates to identify the single most significant factor that impedes student success in the district, and offer their plan to confront it.

“I don’t like the question,” he said. “Because an impediment to student success implies that the students are not succeeding. There wasn’t a question inquiring about how the elementary classes received a 90-percent AIMS test (score) in literacy. Those are the questions I would like to approach.”

Despite his reluctance to answer the question at hand, Vandervoet acknowledged one challenge to student success: “Parents must empathize and exhibit by showing the importance of education. The district must continue to involve the parents in the education of their students.”

Fontes also cited a lack of parental involvement as an impediment, as well as “inconsistency of the curriculums and the presentations of the subjects.” And Hays stressed the need for parents to take an active role in their children’s education at every age.

“Even if the child is a newborn infant, reading to the child is a wonderful thing to do,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what you’re reading, it could be Vogue, it could be the latest Harry Potter novel or Hunger Games, it could be the Washington Times, it doesn’t matter, just read to them.”

Neuman said there are “no easy answers” to the question. “I personally would not be able to answer this question intelligently without first developing a series of in-depth studies of the student-academic achievement profiles of each school,” she said.

However, Neuman added, B-rated schools need to promote student growth if they want to improve. “It’s important for our B schools to increase student growth in order to get that A,” she said.

Lopez cited a lack of teacher consistency as the biggest impediment and said the district should “absolutely try and get a raise for these teachers.”

“If you don’t have a consistent education system, you get new teachers in, and the kids are just not engaged,” he said.

Clapeck said that in order for the district’s students to be successful, they need highly qualified teachers. “We have a lot of good ones in this district (but) we don’t have 100 percent highly qualified teachers. The reason we don’t is, we don’t have the funding to pay them,” he said, adding:

“Proposition 204 gives our district roughly $1 million and cures a lot of sins.”

Question 3

The third and final question of the forum came from the audience. It asked: “Approximately 800 youngsters live in this district and attend school in the Nogales district. Does this concern you? What do you think is the cause, and what are your ideas for keeping students in District 35?”

“This question is actually the reason why I’m up here,” Lopez said. He cited a recent conversation with his daughter, who, in explaining why she wanted to switch to the Nogales district, told him: “They’ve got better sports programs, they’ve got better after-school programs, some of the teachers and coaches are a lot better than they are over here.”

Noting his experience as a Rio Rico Little League board member and softball coach, Lopez said the district has to develop its athletic offerings as well as its academics.

“Sports is very important to us in this area, especially since our demographics are mainly Hispanic. And when our kids decided that sports is a vital part of our education, we have to listen, and we have to give it to them,” he said.

Clapeck noted that the number of lost students “represents north of $2.5 million dollars lost in this district.”

“I would like to see the Legislature say, ‘If you live in the district, you go to school in the district,’” he said, though he added that it’s unlikely the state would pass such a measure.

“We just need to find a way to entice the students here, (and convince them) that we’re better than Nogales,” Clapeck said.

Neuman suggested that because many parents work in another school district, they choose to take their children with them. As for a solution, she said, one possibility would be to expand bus routes, even into other districts, to bring more students to SCVUSD schools as part of an open-enrollment policy.

Fontes said: “I do believe many, many go because of programs that are available in Nogales School District No. 1 that are not available here.” But the best way to be sure, he added “is to canvass these parents and find out exactly why.”

Hays agreed with Neuman that some parents who work in Nogales find it more convenient to take their children to school there. To solve the problem, he said, the district should “highlight the programs that are successful, that are going to be attractive to the parents, and make sure that you increase the programs and the success of other programs to offer those same opportunities that they may be going to Nogales for.”

Vandervoet said the problem of students leaving the district is a major concern. “Obviously, 800 students represents a tremendous amount of money.”

As for causes, he said, some parents may have family members in Nogales who can provide child care after school. And parents who went to Nogales schools may also want their children to attend those same schools.

“Then there’s the possibility that Nogales Unified offers programs that Rio Rico doesn’t offer,” Vandervoet said, adding that he has also met parents from Nogales who send their children to RRHS because they like the school’s band and technical education programs.

Asked by Coppola what he would do to address the problem, Vandervoet said: “On the surface, I would say offer more programs that would attract the students. And convince the parents what a great district this is.”

The candidates were provided a list of 10 possible questions in advance of the forum, and the moderators chose two of those questions during the event. The candidates did not see the third, audience-supplied question in advance.

The reporter of this story, NI managing editor Jonathan Clark, served as the second moderator at the forum.

SIDEBAR:

More on teacher attrition

Between resignations, retirement and non-returned contracts, nearly 19 percent of SCVUSD teachers left the district at the end of the 2011-12 school year, up from 10 percent the previous year. At Rio Rico High School, nearly 29 percent of teachers failed to return for the 2012-13 school year, compared to 13 percent the year before.

By comparison, 27 of the 314 teachers in the Nogales Unified School District resigned following the 2011-12 academic year, and another four failed to return their contracts for the 2012-13 cycle, according to NUSD Human Resources Director Mayra Zuniga. That was slightly less than 10 percent of all teachers.

Another 13 NUSD teachers retired, meaning the district had to replace roughly 14 percent of its teaching staff at the start of the new school year.

At Nogales High School, four of the 82 teachers resigned and another three did not return contracts – a total of 8.5 percent. Another three high school teachers retired, bringing the overall attrition rate to 12 percent.

Zuniga could not immediately provide attrition data for previous years.

The State Department of Education did not respond to a request for statewide teacher attrition rates, but a report published in August by the Arizona Republic showed that attrition at 20 Maricopa County school districts had risen from 9.5 to 13.7 percent during the past three years.