From the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (SPI) to local school board positions, several conservatives are currently leading or have already won key races on the education front in the 2022 General Election.
As of press time, Republican candidate for SPI Tom Horne had increased his lead in his challenge of incumbent Kathy Hoffman. Horne previously served as SPI from 2003 to 2011, prior to successfully running for the Arizona Attorney General’s Office. If the results hold up, Horne says his focus as SPI will be on improving student performance and eradicating Critical Race Theory-based curriculum from Arizona’s public schools.
In the Peoria Unified School District race, Heather Rooks won a hard-fought and challenging race. Her efforts to expose the Social Emotional Learning-based policies and practices in the district eventually led her to request an injunction against an activist parent. As reported by the Arizona Daily Independent, Rooks, a mother of four school-aged children, obtained the injunction based on threats from Democrat activist, Josh Gray.
Two other conservative candidates, Amy Carney and Carine Werner, secured seats on the Scottsdale Unified School District (SUSD) Governing Board. Their victories serve as a powerful repudiation of out-going Governing Board Member Jann-Michael Greenburg. Greenburg was sued by parents who accused him of trying to silence them after they exposed his secret Google Drive dossier on them. As AZ Free Newsreported in April, that dossier included a trove of political opposition research on parents, who opposed the district’s adoption of Social Emotional Learning and Critical Race Theory.
In the race for Flowing Wells School District Governing Board—an area known for being blue—conservative Brianna Hernandez Hamilton is currently holding on to one of two open spots. A mother of three very young children, Hernandez Hamilton ran with the slogan: “Parents + Teachers = Quality Education.”
Kurt Rohrs, a long-time education activist and frequent contributor to AZ Free News, won a spot on the Chandler Unified School District Governing Board. Rohrs, like Horne, focused on improving student performance and eliminating the divisive Critical Race Theory from the district’s curriculum. Many see Rohrs’ presence on the board as an opportunity to restore calm to the district which had become the center of controversy thanks to out-going board member Lindsay Love.
In the race for Dysart Unified School District Governing Board, conservative Dawn Densmore was retained by voters. As current president of the board, Densmore successfully led the fight to end the district’s relationship with the Arizona School Board Association (ASBA). Jennifer Drake also won a seat on the board.
Sandra Christensen is set to win a seat on the Paradise Valley Unified School District Governing Board. Libby Settle and Madicyn Reid are in the lead for spots in Fountain Hills. Paul Carver should take a win in Deer Valley. Jackie Ulmer appears to have been successful in Cave Creek as well as Rachel Walden in Mesa and Chad Thompson in Gilbert. In the Higley Unified School District, conservative Anna Van Hoek also won a seat on the board.
In a tweet from earlier this week, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos summed up what many parents have been feeling over the past few years – left out. In response to the National Education Association’s claim that teachers “know better than anyone” what students need in the classroom, DeVos responded, “You misspelled parents.”
Earlier this week the Arizona School Board Association voted to end its relationship with the National School Board Association, a group which has been under fire by parents, school officials, and legislators for several months.
In her Feb. 16 letter to NSBA, Dr. Sheila Harrison-Williams said the ASBA board of directors voted to discontinue membership in the national organization. Harrison-Williams, who is ASBA’s executive director, referenced a missive the national organization issued to President Joe Biden last fall in which the actions of parents trying to be involved in their children’s education were compared to acts of domestic terrorism.
NSBA has since replaced its executive director and launched a third-party review of certain association activities. But that has not eschewed further concern among Arizona’s school district officials and parents, Harrison-Williams wrote.
“Despite these efforts, it has become clear that ASBA’s continued membership in NSBA has become a hinderance to the work we are undertaking in Arizona on behalf of Arizona’s public school students,” she wrote, adding that the ASBA’s primary obligation is to advocate on behalf of Arizona’s students.
“We are unable to do that if we are continually called to account for the actions of NSBA,” Harrison-Williams wrote.
The ASBA’s announcement comes after state lawmakers were asked to support Senate Bill 1011, which would prohibit public school districts across Arizona from using taxpayer dollars to pay for membership in a state or national school board association. The bill is opposed by the Arizona Association of County School Superintendents and the Arizona School Administrators Association.
However, the issue has become a lightning rod among several school district boards outside Maricopa and Pima counties. Many of those boards have expressed dissatisfaction with what they see as partisan political interference by the NSBA. This, in turn, put pressure on ASBA’s board to cut ties with the national organization.
A state senator has introduced a bill to prohibit public school districts from using taxpayer dollars to pay for membership in a state or national school board association.
Current state law allows a school district governing board to budget and spend funds for membership in an association of school districts within Arizona. But a school district board is not permitted to spend taxpayers’ dollars to join an association which attempts to influence the outcome of an election.
“The Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) has a consistent pattern of lobbying with a clear bias,” Sen. Kelly Townsend (R-LD16) said Tuesday. “This constitutes political activity and is often against the very taxpayers that funded them.”
ASBA “should be serving the parents, and not working hard against them,” Townsend added.
As a result, Townsend is sponsoring Senate Bill 1011, which would still allow a school district to join ASBA or another state association, as long as the membership dues are not paid by taxpayer funds. That leaves ASBA the option, Townsend suggested, of pursuing 501(c)(4) tax exempt status so it can fundraise for operational money “without relying on the taxpayer.”
SB1011 passed out of the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday via a 5-3 partisan vote.
The Arizona Association of County School Superintendents has come out against Townsend’s bill, as has the Arizona School Administrators Association. Among those supporting SB1011 include the Center for Arizona Policy and Diane Douglas, who served as Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction from 2015-2018.
School boards and associations have come under scrutiny the last two years due to COVID-19 protocols which have frequently pitted educators and administrators against the wishes of parents. It has led to a groundswell of parental interest in school operations and curriculum, as well as in how school boards spend funds.
Last September, the National School Boards Association got sideways with many school district governing boards and parents after sending a letter to President Joe Biden complaining about purported threatening and aggressive behavior on the part of parents toward school board members.
NSBA claimed such actions amounted to domestic terrorism which warranted federal law enforcement intervention. The fallout led several state school board associations to withdraw from NSBA.
And in Arizona, it resulted in the creation last year of the Arizona Coalition of School Board as an alternative to ASBA, which is still a member of NSBA.
Townsend recently requested records from ASBA about its expenditures for legal fees in connection with any litigation involving the state. She said her intent is to determine whether those expenditures came from dues paid by any Arizona school board.
ASBA did not comply with her public record request, Townsend said.
“I would hate to know the dues this organization receives from school boards are being used to pay attorneys to sue our state and overturn legislation we’re crafting on behalf of these constituents,” she said. “This is completely inappropriate, and I will be looking into whether or not taxpayer money has been used in this fashion to undo our laws.”
Not all attendees were masked up at the Arizona School Boards Association’s (ASBA) Annual Conference last week, despite having a mask mandate in place. ASBA fought for local school districts to be able to establish mask mandates; they joined a lawsuit that prevailed against Governor Doug Ducey’s mask mandate ban.
Pima County Superintendent of Schools Dustin Williams was one leader spotted maskless during the Superintendents Division Business Meeting. In addition to ASBA’s conference mandate, most of Williams’ school districts have mask mandates in place for their students: Ajo Unified, Amphitheater Unified, Catalina Foothills Unified, Flowing Wells Unified, Sunnyside Unified School District, Tanque Verde Unified, and Tucson Unified.
A number of school officials were also maskless as they recorded testimonies for ASBA. One of them was Red Mesa Unified School District Interim Superintendent Dr. Amy Fuller, former interim superintendent for Scottsdale Unified School District. Fuller’s district currently requires face masks at all times indoors.
Unlike the county superintendent, Tanque Verde Unified Governing Board Member Anne Velosa wore a mask for her testimony.
AZ Free Newsreported in September that a number of attendees at an ASBA conference also didn’t mask up. ASBA spokespersons explained that they had a loosely enforced mask mandate in place, and that the individuals were from various districts with different beliefs on masking.
Parents have voiced concerns about their children’s social development, or the quality of education for those with special needs or disabilities. Current experts on the controversial social-emotional learning (SEL) admit that they don’t have complete studies on the impact of masking on children’s development. However, they speculated that educators could adjust somehow to work around the masks. Feasible solutions haven’t been presented for students who rely on seeing mouths to learn, such as deaf or hearing-impaired students — though some suggest clear masks, those present their own issues like fogging up.
Due to the Arizona School Boards Association (ASBA) not withdrawing from the National School Boards Association (NSBA) over its controversial letter asking the Biden Administration to investigate parent and community opposition as domestic terrorists, Dysart Unified School District (DUSD) Governing Board voted last week to leave the association.
The board was split on the decision, 3-2. President Dawn Densmore issued the motion, and Clerk Christine Pritchard seconded. Board member Chrystal Chaffin joined Densmore and Pritchard in voting to leave ASBA. The remaining two board members, Traci Sawyer-Sinkbeil and Jo Grant, dissented.
Superintendent Quinn Kellis said that about three out of every 30 sample policies are based on opinion rather than statute. Densmore emphasized that it wasn’t the quantity that concerned her — it was the quality of those few opinion-based policies.
“Except for the part where they redline the policy about not teaching that you’re biased because you’re a certain race, gender, sex, you know, ASBA recommends we get rid of that,” said Densmore. “It’s just things like that that have me concerned about ASBA.”
Pritchard said that the people once a part of ASBA that made it amazing are no longer there. She described how political ASBA had become since she was elected over 15 years ago.
“I just feel like ASBA has really changed over the years. When I was first elected to the board, it was 2006, I remember going to the ASBA conference in 2006 and it just had a completely different feel,” said Pritchard. “It seems like for an agency or organization that’s supposed to be nonpartisan they are so far one way. And, whether one way’s the right one or one way’s not the right way, the point is that it’s supposed to be nonpartisan. It seems like they’re so politicized and there’s such an agenda and then to not take a stand against NSBA’s action was really disappointing.“I cringe a lot of times when I get their emails because they’re politicized, and I don’t want to be associated with that. And right now we are. It just doesn’t feel good to me.”
Chaffin said that ASBA’s new board member training just complained about “bad bills” passed by the legislature. She said that ASBA pushes certain agendas constantly and doesn’t factor the individual needs of districts.
“I don’t think they reflect our board and our district’s values,” concluded Chaffin.
“And they didn’t stand up for our parents — that’s the biggest piece. And to pay to be part of an organization that stands behind another organization that would make such a blatantly disrespectful comment, I don’t want to be associated with that,” added Pritchard.
Sawyer-Sinkbiel asked the board if anyone had invited ASBA to offer an explanation for not leaving the NSBA. Densmore responded by citing ASBA Executive Director Dr. Sheila Harrison-Williams’ refusal to address the controversy head-on.
Sawyer-Sinkbiel expressed concern that the board’s actions would hurt rather than help their district by cutting out a . She insisted that this was based on a national narrative rather than a local problem.
“We’re worried about Dysart. We shouldn’t be worried about a national narrative,” responded Sawyer-Sinkbiel. “I feel that we are trying to take all the things that we have done and throwing them out with that few percentage [sic] of the bad things. So, I don’t think that we should separate — I do believe we should have ASBA to come out and answer what questions that we do have. Put their feet to the fire. Ask them exactly what is going on.”
Pritchard rebutted that no clarification was necessary based on ASBA’s actions. She assured that DUSD has their own legal services that address their policies, which Kellis confirmed.
“It’s not a misunderstanding where I need them to clarify with me. It’s just a change in their mindset or a change in their organization as a whole. It’s the same type of political agenda and they shouldn’t be that way,” said Pritchard.
Sawyer-Sinkbiel challenged Chaffin on her statement that the board had an attorney. Kellis clarified that they do have prepaid legal through the trust, assigned based on the case.
Pritchard said that statute analysis and policy drafting could be procured. Chaffin asked why the district couldn’t use the money that would’ve gone to ASBA and pay
Sawyer-Sinkbiel challenged Chaffin again, asking who they would hire and if Chaffin was suggesting they not carry out their elected duties of drafting policy. Chaffin responded that she was suggesting that they could hire someone if they needed review of drafted policies or if they needed alerts on legislative changes.
“That’s a lot of ‘ifs’ and I’m not comfortable with supporting a lot of ‘ifs,” responded Sawyer-Sinkbiel.
Pritchard challenged Sawyer-Sinkbiel to weigh her pragmatic concerns with ethical concerns.
“What about our integrity? What does that mean?” said Pritchard. “To stay with them when this is who they are just because ‘Well, they can look at our policies,’ and I understand what you’re saying Mrs. Sawyer-Sinkbiel, I’m not saying be willy-nilly, I’m saying they’re not the only organization that can do that job.”
Sawyer-Sinkbiel doubled down after neither Pritchard or Chaffin could name an alternative to ASBA. She said they shouldn’t leave ASBA and instead settle for telling the association what upset DUSD. Sawyer-Sinkbiel insisted that DUSD didn’t know why ASBA decided not to leave NSBA.
Grant offered an explanation of her “no” vote similar to Sawyer-Sinkbiel: insisting that there may be financial troubles ahead if they didn’t plan prior to taking action.
“We just pulled an agenda item questioning a budget item for a department for $40,000 and we asked them to please go back and rework that. Now we’re talking another budget item that is $28,998,” said Grant. “And if we cancel with ASBA, we have no idea how much we’re going to spent on policy support or BoardDocs and it could be more than $28,998. It just seems to me that we should do our homework and come back with okay, BoardDocs is going to cost this amount of money and somebody to do policy support [will cost that much].”
Chaffin countered that integrity was the greater concern at the moment, not logistics. She said that the board has six months to figure out who would fill ASBA’s shoes.
“How long do you want to compromise […] our integrity to be associated with an organization that views parents the way NSBA does, that is very politicized,” said Chaffin. “We talk about, we don’t want our teachers bringing politics into the classroom. Well, this particular organization is flooding our district with tons of their politicized opinions and their views and agendas. It’s a matter of principle to me.”
The back-and-forth between Chaffin and Grant became more intense after that. Grant repeated that she’d like to see the costs before making a decision on ASBA.
“So there’s a price to integrity?” asked Chaffin.
Grant retorted that their decisions as a board have nothing to do with integrity. She also asked who would lobby for DUSD, if not ASBA.
“It has nothing to do with integrity. We talk about taxpayer money — what if the bill comes back at $50,000? I’m just asking the question,” said Grant. “When you walk in this door, we are now school board members. We may have different political opinions outside this room. […] At the end of the day, we have to be supporting public schools.”
Grant also challenged the notion that ASBA is political. She rejected the notion that the association’s emails were political, asking for specific examples. Grant dismissed Densmore’s example of race-based caucuses, insisting that both state and federal governments have race-based caucuses.
Sawyer-Sinkbeil repeated that she felt a personal attack on DUSD would be a more relevant reason to leave ASBA. She disagreed that NSBA’s letter included DUSD parents. Pritchard insinuated that Sawyer-Sinkbeil wasn’t being objective on the matter because of her having served leadership roles within ASBA.
DUSD membership to ASBA lasts through June 2022, making up .25 percent of the district’s operational budget according to the district. ASBA offers policy support and legal insight on legislative changes relative to K-12 education.
The board also approved a resolution related to the decision to leave ASBA. Densmore, Pritchard, and Chaffin voted for it, while Sawyer-Sinkbeil and Grant voted against it. The resolution asserted that parents had the right to parent their children without obstruction or interference from any political entity or government, and that ASBA’s actions weren’t reflective of that statement.
The resolution cited Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s remarks during a testimony before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions at the end of September. Cardona said that parents shouldn’t be the sole authority in their children’s education.
“I believe parents are important stakeholders, but I also believe educators have a role in determining educational programming,” said Cardona.
The resolution also called upon the Arizona legislature to pass a bill strengthening protections for parental rights.
The board’s decision came less than a month after voting to end its relationship with the NSBA.