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Transcript: Q&A with TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone

TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone unexpectedly announced his resignation Wednesday, March 20 - more than a year before his contract expires. Pedicone participated in a live Q&A chat on his resignation and his days with the Tucson Unified School District. Read the transcript to see what was discussed.

  • Hello and welcome to today's live chat with TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone. Pedicone will be taking questions this hour on his recent resignation from the district and any questions regarding TUSD. Please leave your questions in the comment box and he will get through as many as he can.
  • Let me begin by expressing my appreciation for the opportunity to talk about Tucson Unified School District and to each of you who are interested in learning more. Having done this before, many of the questions may be complicated and require a complicated response. I will do the best I can to answer as many questions as possible.
  • Dr. Pedicone, In all honesty, should TUSD be broken up into 2-3 smaller districts?
  • I do not believe that size is the predominant issue in TUSD. I can give you numerous examples of larger districts that perform well and do not experience the level of distraction that TUSD does. But we are a diverse district which serves a large population with many citizens who do not have children in schools. This tends to invite opinions from very different perspectives. For that reason it is critical that there be established values that support a culture which will bind the organization together. Over time TUSD has not focused on a common culture, instead has been subject to the political demands of many interest groups that have moved policy makers and administrators in many directions. For this district to improve we must focus on what is important and leadership must do what is right in spite of pressures that would take us to other places. It has less to do with size and more to do with vision.
  • What would you say was your greatest success and your greatest disappointment during your time with TUSD?
  • I think the greatest success over all was in the work we did to convince people that this district can and must change in a positive way. There is the perception that this "ship" is so large nothing can move it that is simply not true. The improvements in achievement, in systems, the fact that we have been released from all audits and are now operating as any other school district and the numerous improvements that our administration, faculty and staff have accomplished is a tribute to what is possible. In terms of disappointment, the issues that confronted the district with regard to the Mexican American Studies program and the terrible politicalization of that issue divided our community and in the end I believe negatively impacted students regardless of what side of this issue people were on.
  • What does your departure mean for the attempt to balance the district budget?
  • We will address the budget shortfall and have a balanced budget by June 30. The importance of the school closure process to reduce the number of schools that we are supporting at the expense of all programs for children cannot be overstated. It appears we have seen a stabilization of our enrollment and we expect to lose fewer students than in the past five to ten years. If we can continue our work to reduce the operational costs by making smart decisions, we will reverse trends and not find ourselves in the same difficult financial situations in the future.
  • What would it take to rescind your resignation? As a long time employee of TUSD, you have been our hope over the last two years to pull us through and show others what wonderful, positive things are happening in our district.
  • While I appreciate the sentiments, I believe this decision is the right one at this point in time. As I mentioned this governing board will be facing another election next year where potentially two members of the board could change. As was the case this past year, with my contract renewal there were many community members that felt the new board should select the Superintendent. This will be the same situation next year so for the sake of the district it is better for this board to work with a Superintendent who will be here for the long term. From the beginning, it was clear my job was to move us on a positive trajectory so the next Superintendent could take us forward.
  • What can the governing board do better to improve the district?
  • The Governing Board plays a critical role in the success of any district. I believe the work we have done to reinforce the importance of a positive Board/Superintendent team can serve as the foundation for district improvement. Governing Boards hire the Superintendent to provide leadership and get the work done. When a Governing Board does their job of setting policy and doing governance and a Superintendent provides the leadership necessary to carry it forward that relationship works. Finally, as I have frequently pointed out everyone in the organization including the citizens of this community have an obligation to point out the positive things that exist in the organization. The Board is in a perfect position to carry that message forward. I believe that is a key.
  • Then what can the Tucson community do to help TUSD? Especially those who don't have children attending schools, just us taxpayers who happen to care a whole lot about education.
  • One of the most difficult things I have had to accept since coming into the Superintendency is the tendency on the part of many members of our community to take pride in being able to point out the imperfections that exist in our district as they do in every other district. When people applaud at Board meetings when someone in Call to the Audience says something negative about the school district that is an indication of a negative perception that is perpetuated by the behaviors of people on a regular basis. The community has an obligation to express concerns when appropriate but also an obligation to support the positive things that exist across the district. Too often that does not appear to be the case. It should not be fashionable to celebrate problems the district may encounter rather accept that the district will never be perfect, but none is, and let us work together to improve. In addition, when situations arise to support public education, especially for the second largest school district in the state, it should be viewed as an opportunity. Proposition 204 was an example of that. Had Prop 204 passed, we would not be facing the financial dilemma we are currently in. That is not to say hard decisions would not have had to be made but it would not have been in a crisis mode. We encourage the community to take advantage of every opportunity to help support public education possible. Eighty-eight percent of Tucson's children are in public schools and that will predictably be the case in the future. Supporting public education, supports the future of this community.
  • Do you believe that the fact that TUSD is unionized hinders the district's ability to function efficiently? I.E., many are protected by seniority whereas new talent is laid off?
  • There is no question that unions have their place in Tucson Unified School District. We all know unions protect worker's rights and are part of American tradition. I believe unions also have an obligation to protect the organization that supports the very workers they represent. So when the Governing Board asks union leadership to contribute to solutions to address the financial deficit that should be viewed as an opportunity. I think over time unions have taken various positions that have helped and hindered our school district. It is fair to say that a collaborative relationship with all employee groups is a key to our district success. We employ almost 9,000 people. We all have to take the responsibility for the welfare of those individuals seriously. If we do and we work at the relationships necessary to arrive at effective decisions we become stronger as a result.
  • Dr. Pedicone, thank you for your wonderful service. I join Becky in voicing the opinion that you gave us - TUSD parents - some hope. Having said this, I am very worried about TUSD's future. I too see a splintered community but the worst problem remains financial. I was on the budget focus groups and joined in recommending that TUSD close 25 schools. We believed this was a necessary first step to address the 15,000 empty seats that are draining the district of resources. We also felt that the failure to move aggressively could lead to a death spiral for the district because it would not be able to move fast enough to address an ongoing loss of students while also working to improve the quality of its education in what is now a highly competitive environment. Do you agree that there must be many more school closures for TUSD to remain a competitive educational choice?
  • I appreciate the question because it speaks to the future of this district. As you point out, the citizen focus groups realized that to support the number of empty seats equivalent to the size of the fourth largest school district in the Tucson valley is to say that keeping those buildings open is more important than providing the opportunities those dollars could represent in terms of improvement for all students in the district. Focus groups suggested that to avoid deep cuts in other areas, which is what we find ourselves facing today, schools should be closed and resources infused into the remaining open schools. I believe this was a wise perspective. However, closing schools is emotional and means citizens in neighborhoods that value their small schools feel under assault and that is understandable but if we don't address the challenge of having too many schools in a budget that is consistently being reduced at the state level we will have to continually confront deficits in the future. So under the current conditions, I am afraid closure will be a topic for future considerations. As you know, we are not alone one needs only look at the national picture to know this is an issue that we must address.
  • One other issue that has persistently arisen during my time on the focus groups and on my local school's site council is the belief that TUSD remains extremely overstaffed at its headquarters. Every time I heard this I would challenge the speaker to present some evidence of this claim. Yet even in the absence of such evidence, this belief remains pervasive and, indeed, played a substantial role in the focus group's choices regarding values and where to cut the budget. I believe you are highly respected and retain great credibility. Can you address once and for all the issue of TUSD's HQ staffing? I know one board member suggested that your staff is so slim that it impeded the possibility of closing more schools. Again, thank you.
  • It is difficult to defend criticisms about high administrative costs because most people do not understand how the Auditor General defines Administration. If you read the report, instructional budgets are compared to non-instructional budgets and most people assume non-instructional means administration and they relate that to administrators at 1010. The fact of the matter is that non-instructional means anything other than teachers and people who directly interact in the classroom with students. That means non-intstructional/administration refers to counselors, librarians, nurses, psychologists, and the list of student support personnel goes on. It also has a direct relationship with the number of schools open in our district because every school that remains open that could be closed represents administrative costs for a principal, a custodian, an office manager, as well as student support personnel that could be reduced to support consolidated schools. In fact, TUSD spends more dollars per student in the classroom than all of its peer districts and most districts in Arizona. In addition, we do spend a high percentage of our revenue on student and instructional support. That is because we get a significant amount of federal funding to address the increased needs of our students in poverty, our English Language Learners, and our exceptional education students, that are greater in number than most districts. So it is untrue to state that the non-instructional budget line refers to the number of people at 1010 rather it reflects a district that serves students who deserve additional resources outside of the classroom, while at the same time spending more actual dollars on students in the classroom than other districts in the state.
  • Once again, thank you for the opportunity to provide this perspective and for your ongoing support of Tucson Unified, our city's school district.
  • The Star thanks TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone for participating in today's live chat. Thanks also go out to you, the audience, for your thoughtful questions.
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