Candidates For Arizona Superintendent Of Public Instruction Address School Safety
On Tuesday night, five people who want to be the next state superintendent shared their ideas for leading the state’s public education system.
The forum was sponsored by the organization Arizona Talks and moderated by Arizona Republic reporter and editor. Alia Beard Rau.
Incumbent Republican Diane Douglas, a former Peoria School District Governing Board president, hopes to maintain the seat she’s held for the last four years.
Tempe City Councilman and technical education district administrator David Schapira was the only Democratic candidate on stage.
Stacie Banks, a former Arizona teacher and education consultant, is running as an independent.
Republican Jonathan Gelbart directed school development at BASIS Charter Schools before resigning to run.
Bob Branch, a Republican, is a former businessman and college administrator.
Other announced candidates who did not participate in the forum include Kathy Hoffman, Tracy Livingston and Frank Riggs.
Audience members included teachers, former teachers and those in the education business like Sam Shammah. He didn’t come with a specific agenda, but to listen for a plan — “The best plan to increase student learning based on what we have available.”
One week ago, a gunman walked into a Florida school and killed 17 people.
The shooting prompted the first question at the forum: what would candidates propose to keep Arizona students safe.
Diane Douglas said schools need to be structurally secure and have police officers on campus.
"We need people in place who know when, God forbid, an emergency comes down, how do we get help, who is the right help to get," Douglas said.
Former teacher Stacie Banks said the drills her students practiced were not enough and often not taken seriously.
“We have to stop acting like schools can solve these problems," Banks said.
David Schapira agreed and pointed outside the education system.
“What we need in this country is strong mental health treatment. We also need common-sense gun policy," Schapira said.
What everyone did agree on was the problem of gun violence at schools is complicated and tragic.
A Superintendent’s Highest Priority
Jonathan Gelbart, the candidate with the deepest charter school experience, said his top priority was to promote innovation and flexibility.
He called Arizona’s current system the equivalent of a Ford Model T.
“It’s kind of a clunker that we keep patching up and trying to keep on the road when in reality, we need a new car,” Gelbart said.
Bob Branch made several references to his support for President Donald Trump throughout the evening and said his strategy relies on changes in the federal government.
“I stand for dismantling the Department of Education for the United States,” Branch said.
Arizona’s pressing teacher shortage and poor retention came up frequently.
It was on the mind of student teacher Nicole Atkinson in the audience.
“I would love to stay to contribute and help Arizona’s education, just because they are behind,” Atkinson said. “I think higher pay would definitely help keep quality teachers here.”
Banks gave a succinct answer. Her top priority would be retaining and recruiting teachers.
“We do that by improving their working conditions, by ensuring they have more money in their paychecks and by hopefully raising the amount of money they make on an annual basis,” Banks said.
Charter v. District Schools
The last question of the evening came from the audience and asked how the candidates would unified charter and district school leaders. The discussion united most of the candidates.
Douglas said she has heard about this so-called rivalry every day in her time as superintendent.
“It comes in because we have two systems within a public education system that quite frankly get to play by very different rules,” Douglas said. “That’s not fair.”
Douglas said she supported school choice, but wants stricter financial accountability.
“I have the right as a taxpayer to make sure that my public officials are having some accountability,” Schapira said.
Branch said equal standards would ensure both charter and district schools should be held to the same standards.
“I have to make sure that the failed schools are taken care of,” Branch said.
Gelbart pointed to the state’s low education funding as the source for tension between public schools.
“Everyone’s kind of scrambling for a piece of the pie,” Gelbart said. “It makes it hard just to have a level-headed conversation.”