GOP bill would allow school boards to throw out superintendents whose districts have failing schools

By: - January 24, 2023 8:22 pm

Photo courtesy U.S. Army

School boards would have broader power to fire superintendents they believe are failing to meet the job’s responsibilities, under a new proposal that critics say could put board members at odds with the person they hired to run the districts — to the detriment of the schools they oversee. 

Currently, state law limits superintendents to three year contracts. But House Bill 2291 would allow governing boards to shorten that even further and refuse to pay them for the remainder of their contract. Superintendents who governing boards have determined violated a policy the board enacted or whose school districts include one or more schools with a D or F letter grade for at least three years would be in danger of losing their jobs. 

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According to a report from the State Board of Education, as many as 91 schools across Arizona were rated D or F during the 2021-2022 academic year. The letter system is a complex measurement of several factors, including student growth in traditional academic subjects, graduation rates, the proficiency of English Language Learners and the academic readiness of students to take on high school or college.

Globe Republican state Rep. David Cook, who sponsored the proposal, said school superintendents who are doing their jobs well have nothing to fear. Instead, the bill gives governing boards that deal with unsatisfactory superintendents a way out. 

“If they’re not doing their job — this is a right-to-work state — then (governing boards) can terminate, and they’re not on the hook,” Cook told his colleagues on the House Education Committee on Tuesday as they considered his bill. 

Democrats on the panel worried the bill could lead to superintendents shouldering the blame for circumstances beyond their control. Rep. Nancy Gutierrez, D-Tucson, said Cook’s proposal doesn’t specify that the three years schools aren’t improving have to be consecutive, or under that particular superintendent’s tenure. 

She also pointed out that it doesn’t make allowances for schools that are showing some signs of improvement, but are still considered failing. A school that moves from an F to a D rating, for example, would still count against a superintendent. 

“It’s hard to go from an F to a C,” Gutierrez said. 

Cook agreed that those caveats should be included in the bill, and said he would consider future amendments. 

Rep. Judy Schwiebert, D-Phoenix, said rural districts often face greater challenges than more urban ones because of the income level disparity between the two areas. 

“I would imagine that there are a lot of rural schools that, in particular…that do have some legitimate reasons for having issues with helping students improve,” she said. “It may be that they come from very low-income households, and we know that it takes a lot of extra resources to address the needs of those students.” 

Cook dismissed Schwiebert’s argument, however, noting that it’s also a point brought up by critics who’ve complained to him about the bill. Low-income and minority students — who studies have shown are disproportionately represented in low-income populations compared to white students — are just as capable of achieving the same success as urban and non-minority students, he rebutted.

“In rural Arizona, this is one of the (arguments) that they use,” Cook said. “I got this phone call that said, ‘Oh, but we have this certain percentage of ethnic minorities,’ and all I told him was, ‘Do you think those kids are less smart than the other kids?’”

It all comes down to who’s directing the schools, he said, and empowering school boards to decide the best fit will invariably lead to improved outcomes. 

Both the Arizona School Administrators group, which represents superintendents, and the Arizona School Boards Association showed up to register their opposition to the bill. 

Using the letter grade system to measure a superintendent’s work is not helpful and is actually reductive, said Mark Barnes, a lobbyist for Arizona School Administrators.

“The letter grade is too crude of a measure to judge a superintendent’s performance,” he said. 

Barnes added that enshrining HB2291 into law would invariably convince superintendents to stay away from struggling school districts — depriving them of applicants who could, potentially, make a difference. 

Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the school boards association, said the bill threatens to make the relationship between superintendents and their governing boards into an adversarial one. While superintendents tend to have three-year terms, board members sometimes have two year tenures. What happens, he asked, if enough new members are elected who dislike the existing superintendent?

“If a board majority flips and the new majority doesn’t like the new superintendent, their contract can be rescinded,” Kotterman said. “That kind of churn can be detrimental to the instructional philosophy of a school district and, like it or not, boards and superintendents do need to work together to ensure a successful school district.”

Chairwoman Beverly Pingerelli, R-Peoria, who also serves on Peoria Unified School District’s governing board, posited that the bill might convince superintendents to work harder. 

“We have a shortage of teachers, but not necessarily administrators,” she said. “This kind of bill would…maybe tighten up superintendents (so) that they would put their best at various schools and, if their best wasn’t good enough, that they would make changes at a faster pace.” 

The bill earned bipartisan approval, passing the committee on an 8-2 vote, although some lawmakers warned their future support was contingent on the measure being amended. It next goes before the full House for consideration.

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Gloria Rebecca Gomez
Gloria Rebecca Gomez

Gloria Gomez joined the Arizona Mirror in August 2022. Prior to that, she wrote for the Mirror as the UA School of Journalism’s Don Bolles Fellow. She has written for the Arizona Daily Star, the Arizona Republic and worked at the Arizona Daily Wildcat. She graduated in 2022 with bachelor's degrees in journalism and political science, with a Spanish minor. She’s a member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors and National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

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