These answers were originally submitted to the Arizona Republic on July 20, 2020.
What do you believe is the county superintendent’s most important role, and how will you serve that role?
The most public facing role of this office is appointing school board members when there is a vacancy on a school board. Over nearly four years, I appointed 40 governing board members to more than half the districts in the county. My criteria have always been to select people who care about the district, are temperamentally ready to govern, and are fiscally responsible. I understand each district is unique, and I am proud of every single person I have appointed. I also manage the voter education component of school district bond and override elections. However, the role I am most proud of is the work I do with the kids who are in our Juvenile Detention facility – we call it a transitional learning center. These aren’t teens who are long-term incarcerated, but in our care temporarily while they go through the local judicial process. Frequently, these are kids who, for whatever reason, haven’t been successful in our traditional education system. We are reworking how we teach these kids. I am passionate about career and technical education (CTE) for these students, and we are implementing more meaningful and engaging experiences for them. We are also working to offer them helpful support once they leave our care.
What additional support would you provide teachers through the pandemic?
During the pandemic my office has provided support for teachers and districts throughout the county. For example, I am actively working with county public health leaders, to distribute COVID protection equipment to our districts and charter schools. Anything I can do to help create a healthy and safe environment for our teachers is paramount at the moment. Early in the pandemic, I created an online message board for teachers to share ideas about what is working, or not, as they establish their online classrooms. We invited not just teachers in Maricopa County, but educators across the state to share their experiences and ideas around what works in online education. We also shifted our professional development for teachers online. This summer we are hosting internet accessible professional learning experiences in conjunction with Palo Verde Generating Station, and federally-funded cybersecurity educators at Cyber.org.
What additional support would you provide parents and students through the pandemic?
The biggest impact of COVID-19 on education is unpredictability. When Governor Ducey announced statewide school closures and in-person education went online, the first big problem was how to help families with no internet access. My office immediately mobilized, and partnered with businesses and nonprofits to provide internet access, computers, and tablets to families. We worked with the Phoenix Chamber Foundation, Data Doctors, School Connect and others to help provide laptops to kids and their families. Today we face the next big problem: how to bring students back to in-person learning. Students need their teachers. Student instruction held exclusively online is not good enough, especially for kids in grades K-6. We need in-person learning as soon as we can while keeping students, teachers and staff safe. My office has been coordinating with county health leaders, school districts, and other community leaders to identify the best practices possible for school openings.
What will you do over the next four years to attract and retain great teachers?
I launched the Teacher Retention Project in the Fall of 2018. I surveyed thousands of Maricopa County teachers to determine what parts of the profession gave them joy and what parts caused the most frustration. The data closely matched National reports on teacher satisfaction. The top three factors that drive Maricopa County teachers from the profession are salary, class sizes, and pressure from increased workloads. My next step was to deliver this information to school administrators and provide them with tools to address teacher retention. I launched the Interrelationship Digraph process at the annual Arizona School Administrators conference. The process helps administrators determine the drivers that will most impact teacher retention. It helps analyze the links between each factor and identify which factor drives the others. From there, my office worked with schools and districts committed to making changes to improve teacher satisfaction and increase retention. This work is continuing. A new set of surveys are going out to Maricopa County teachers. The data and follow-up support will be given to administrators to continue improving job satisfaction. By increasing teacher retention, we ensure that more Maricopa County students have access to the best teachers. In my job I have encountered many exceptional new colleagues among my fellow teachers. So, I created a Superintendent Teacher Advisory Team (STAT). I meet regularly with this diverse group of teachers to discuss and unpack the joys and challenges of teaching. Then we connect with education decision makers across the county. It is important that teachers have a voice in making decisions that affect their work.
How would you improve the financial accountability of schools and governing boards?
The first tool I have as County School Superintendent is to appoint fiscally responsible school board members in the event of a vacancy. In education, fiscal responsibility means focusing our tax dollars on the classroom. This can be in the form of hiring the right number of teachers to ensure a productive class size, or perhaps increasing teacher pay, especially for outstanding teachers. In Arizona our districts run relatively lean budgets compared to other states, and that’s why principals and teachers have been asked to step up and play bigger roles in student success. That is where our money should be focused – at the school and classroom level. Sometimes districts begin to show signs of financial trouble, and that’s when our office steps in. We work to ensure proper audits, and if necessary we use our expert financial management staff to get districts back on track.