CUSD board candidates set out priorities The Chandler Arizonan

CUSD board candidates set out priorities

October 24th, 2020 Chandler Arizona Staff
CUSD board candidates set out priorities
City News

By Kevin Reagan
Arizonan Staff Writer

The three candidates on the ballot for Chandler Unified School District Governing Board have a range of priorities and goals they’d like to achieve if elected by the voters on Nov. 3.

But a former CUSD teacher has her sights set on upending one of them with a write-in campaign of her own.

Normally, the county would have canceled the board election if there were only three candidates for three seats – which is what happened in the Gilbert Public Schools Governing Board race.

But Sharon Tuttle’s emergence as a write-in candidate means the election is on.

The candidates on the ballot include: Joel Wirth, the district’s former chief financial officer; Jason Olive, an architect and parent of two CUSD students; and board President Barbara Mozdzen, who is seeking her fourth consecutive term.

Longtime board members David Evans and Karen McGee declined to run for re-election this year – opening the door for some new voices to be added to a board that presides over one of Arizona’s largest school districts.

Questions submitted by the SanTan Sun News to the candidates revealed a broad spectrum of concerns they have about CUSD as it continues to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Class sizes, budget woes and unstable enrollment were mentioned by all three candidates. Tuttle did not respond.

Chandler Unified’s current board members have spent the last six months making tough decisions about how the district was going to react to the tumultuous pandemic.

The uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 often resulted in a split among the five board members on when and how CUSD would reopen its 42 campuses.

Each of the three board candidates on the ballot expressed anxiety over how CUSD would continue to navigate the pandemic-related chaos.

Mozdzen, who voted to reopen, said her first priority for the next year will be making sure the district corrects any learning gaps students experienced while schools were closed.

COVID-19 also created a multitude of social-emotional problems that may have interfered with students’ learning, she said. 

“Family situations could be unstable due to loss of employment, or long stretches of confinement, and this can impact the ability of children to focus on learning which will also have to be addressed,” Mozdzen said.

Mozdzen also expressed apprehension about the district’s finances in the coming months. CUSD administrators have already estimated a budget loss of $21 million due to a recent dip in enrollment.

“The pandemic has impacted our budget negatively this year,” Mozdzen said, “and declining enrollment due to build out and aging communities will impact our budget negatively in the future.”

Wirth, who retired from the district in 2018, has concerns about school funding as well.

He believes the district’s first priority in the near future should be to find additional revenue streams to supplement the district’s budget.

CUSD administrators have said the projected budget loss has been due partly to a decline in usage of the district’s community and after-school programs, which were canceled during the pandemic.

Wirth said he would like to see these community programs broadened to generate more revenue for CUSD.

“I would greatly expand our community education program which provides services to students in the summer, offering all programs indoors,” he said. “These programs would include but not be limited to sports, academics, fine arts and personal enrichment.” 

Olive thinks the district should be preparing for a future that could include a major decline in enrollment.

Although CUSD had been expecting to see a major boost to enrollment over the next decade – so much so the district built another high school to accommodate future growth – the district started this school year with 1,600 fewer students than expected.

“Our district is not growing like it once was so (we) will have to shift our mindset around what we are doing,” Olive said. “We can’t be caretakers here.  We have to get ready for what is coming.”

When asked about his thoughts on how CUSD handled the pandemic, Olive said the district’s online schooling wasn’t always effective or constructive for his own children.

“I thought that the initial response from the district was not as good as it could have been,” he added. “My child did not do well in the spring.  Since the summer, the online teaching has improved but it is not a good substitute for in-person learning.”

Wirth thought CUSD did an “adequate” job responding to COVID-19 while Mozdzen admitted online learning did not work for many families.

Before COVID-19, the school district was routinely called out for its response to issues involving equity, race and students’ mental health.

CUSD began offering services that address their social-emotional needs of students and Mozdzen said she wants to see these services continue.

“Learning these skills positively impacts the ability to achieve in school, career, and life,” Mozdzen said. “Strong social/emotional skills have been shown to improve student achievement.”

Tuttle, now an English Learners teacher for Casa Grande Elementary School District, touts her “proven track record of commended performance” as an educator.

She describes herself on her website as “a staunch advocate for equity and social justice measures that affect the well-being of students, families, staff and school systems.

She also has worked with Stand Up Speak Up Save A Life, a nonprofit that addresses teen suicide and the issues that lead to it, and worked on the Arizona Education Association’s Ethnic Minority Leadership Task Force, according to her LinkedIn web page.

She taught in CUSD from 2016-19. 

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