CASA GRANDE — A portion of proposed education materials under review by the Casa Grande Elementary School District caused heated discussion by community members at the most recent Governing Board meeting on Tuesday.
Several speakers decried the curriculum’s insertion of writing prompts and activities that they claimed support Critical Race Theory, a concept that originated as defining the intersection of race and U.S. law but which has been more broadly defined, especially by critics, to include topics that center on racial bias as a primary cause of inequality within the U.S.
According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, “critical race theory” is defined as “an intellectual and social movement based on the premise that race is not a natural, biologically grounded feature of human beings but a socially constructed (culturally invented) category that is used to oppress and exploit people of colour.”
Several members of the community brought packets highlighting what they thought were the problematic materials, which come from the online teaching curriculum tool Actively Learn.
“I am appalled to see how much was overlooked before this entered community review,” said Michael Cruz, former public information officer for the elementary school district and currently chief of staff to Pinal County Supervisor Steve Miller. “It is evident throughout this curriculum could ultimately lead to students studying this information. Not only is this material illegal in Arizona, these types of studies do not belong in our classrooms.”
Cruz went on to say that he felt CRT encourages students to see race as the primary determinant in their lives, and if that were the case, he would not be where he is today.
Cruz went on to call out Actively Learn’s material on LGBTQ issues, arguing such content should be taught in the home, not in the school setting.
Supervisor Miller himself attended the meeting and echoed Cruz’s concerns, describing CRT as antithetical to what he believed America to represent.
“This education system here has been fantastic to my children and I hope it is to my grandchildren,” Miller said. “This has been a terrific community, but this type of stuff doesn’t advance that ball. I am a red blooded American, I love that flag. I was given a lot of opportunity in this country, this material is not what Pinal County is about.”
One passage that Cruz flagged on LGBTQ issues is entitled “She’s Cool, she’s funny, she’s gay” by Sandra Leon and is about someone whose sister comes out as a lesbian.
“As far as I know, my sister loves being a woman,” the passage reads. “She enjoys her femininity. For her, being gay doesn’t have anything to do with a secret desire to be a man — far from it. Sonia is a lesbian because she enjoys the company of other women, physically as well as mentally. She’s told me that, for her, a relationship between two women is deeper than that between a woman and a man.”
During the meeting, Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales briefly addressed the concerns during her monthly report to the board.
“These curricular materials are supplemental,” Gonzales said. “It’s like an online library, so there are lots of content areas. It does not mean our teachers will be teaching from every single resource.”
On the curriculum website, a search of “critical race theory” on Actively Learn turns up only one item, an opinion piece by a professor at California State University, Lindsay Perez Huber, entitled “Rooting Out Racism in Children’s Books.”
Some of the tenor of the complaints came from the fact that the link to the feedback form was broken.
The district has decided to extend the period of public comment from Nov. 2 to Dec. 12 after this was called to the board’s attention. The materials will be considered for adoption at that time.
Members of the public can access the full list of new curriculum materials up for review here.
When journalist Bill Coates began writing his new novel, “Needles Arizona,” flip phones were still new and popular.
“The book is set in 2007, when I first started writing it,” he said. “It sat in a drawer for a few years, then it became one of three books I set a goal to finish when I retired.”
The new book by Coates, a retired journalist and editor with PinalCentral, is a fiction finalist in the Arizona Authors Association 2021 literacy contest. Winners will be announced Nov. 6.
“I can’t do worse than honorable mention,” Coates said.
“Needles Arizona” is a self-published novel that mixes humor with mystery.
“It’s a bit of fun,” Coates said. “There’s no sex but some people do get hurt.”
The story follows the tale of the fictional McFinney brothers as they “leave a trail of broken bodies on a run to deliver a stolen cristate saguaro cactus to a cult leader’s desert sanctuary,” a description of the book said.
Main character Billy Olsen is a Pima-Norwegian “cactus cop” with the state Department of Agriculture, according to Coates.
“He’s a big man, overweight and borderline diabetic,” Coates said.
As the story unfolds, Olsen “teams up with Jane Fillmore, a not-quite-by-the-book deputy sheriff, to track down the McFinneys and solve the murder of the state’s savviest cactus thief.”
While the book is fiction, Coates put his journalist’s training to work in writing the manuscript. He interviewed people, took notes and visited places to create details for the story’s setting.
“It’s pretty much made up but I did talk to a cactus thief and other people,” he said. “And there are details in the book of some of the places I visited. The title ‘Needles Arizona’ comes from the name of a fictional cactus nursery, mentioned in the book.”
The book, he said, aims to be fun with quirky characters and an adventurous story line.
“It’s not to be taken seriously,” he said. “I hope people chuckle. It’s along the lines of if you call an ambulance and the Three Stooges show up.”
Coates, who has master’s degrees in journalism and political science, spent more than 30 years working as a journalist, including more than a decade at PinalCentral.
Since retiring, he continues to write a popular, often humorous, twice-monthly human interest column for PinalCentral.
His resume also includes a stint at Arizona Capitol Times as well as writing freelance pieces for The Arizona Republic, Phoenix Magazine, Phoenix Business Journal and one short humor piece for Arizona Highways.
“As a reporter, I always wanted to go beyond just reporting a story,” he said. “I’m not an outgoing person, so reporting was good for me because it forces you to get out there and talk to people and hear good stories.”
A writer since childhood, he once dreamed of becoming a science fiction novelist.
“In my 20s, I submitted a manuscript that was sent back to me with a note telling me it was a tedious sermon on a tired subject,” Coates said. “But I wrote stories as a kid. In sixth grade I wrote a story based on a Dracula movie and a few years later I wrote another original story.”
He began his three recent books while working as a reporter, spending weekends developing characters and plots.
“’Needles Arizona’ took about a year to finish once I started working on it again,” he said. “My book ‘Rancho, Javelina,’ is fiction, but it’s loosely based on a town like Casa Grande and the Casa Grande Dispatch,” he said.
“Rancho Javelina” follows the story of a fictional features editor at a community newspaper who later switches to reporting for the newspaper’s police beat.
“One day he’s interviewing a plumber crossing the country on a pogo stick, the next day he’s looking into a pair of murders,” a description of the book says.
His other book, “Pug Ugly and Pretty Dead” pre-dates “Rancho Javelina” and follows the story of a Scottsdale-based reporter who becomes involved in the death of a prized pug-owning homeless man.
Coates is a nearly lifelong Arizona resident. He was born in Phoenix but moved frequently as his father was in the U.S. Air Force.
“We returned after he retired in time for me to attend high school in Phoenix,” Coates said. “I’ve been here ever since.”
He attended Arizona State University.
“Needles Arizona” and Coates’ other self-published books are available online on Amazon.com.
PHOENIX — Arizona schools are facing the prospect of not being able to legally spend some of the money they are receiving.
And without legislative action they will have to reduce their spending this school year by a cumulative total of more than $1.2 billion. That translates out to more than $1,300 per student than what they’ve already budgeted, a 17% drop.
Put another way, they will be able to collect the state and local taxes as planned. They just won’t be able to spend it all.
And that has implications for districts who may find themselves unable to pay for the teachers they hired and the contracts they’ve already signed.
The only thing that could avert this fiscal train wreck would be action by the legislature which could approve an exemption from the voter-approved aggregate expenditure limit which currently stands at about $6.6 billion.
But that would take a two-thirds vote. And that vote would have to happen soon after lawmakers reconvene in January to help schools avoid having to make up that 17% loss in spending authority with last-minute cuts.
“For any district, a 17% reduction in the allowable spending would have grave implications,” said Dawn Dee Hodge, superintendent of the Coolidge Unified School District. “For our district that may include a reduction of teachers, administration, and staff, increased class sizes, increased transportation radius, and fewer opportunities for intervention and extension of learning outside of the school day.
Hodge said some of the expansion projects CUSD has planned for increased enrollment may also be put on hold and the money used to provide technology for every student could be reduced.
“Districts will have to be creative with their budgets to stay within the allowable spending limit and still meet the needs of the students they serve,” Hodge said.
Casa Grande Elementary School District Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales said her district is prepared.
“CGESD is well positioned to deal with a temporary stalemate of the legislature, and we plan to use funds we have in reserves to help us get by until an agreement is reached,” Gonzales said.
Gubernatorial press aide C.J. Karamargin would not commit to Gov. Doug Ducey supporting an exemption.
“The governor is not going to comment on pending future legislation, if it is pending at all,’’ he said.
Instead, Karamargin listed things he said his boss has done to improve overall education funding. For example, he said, Ducey signed a budget which funds the construction of seven new schools this fiscal year.
Only thing is, those are dollars that can be spent only for school construction and cannot be used for basic operations.
More to the point, no matter how much more cash the governor says is given to schools, the expenditure limit means they cannot spend it absent an exemption from the limit.
Karamargin also noted that schools got more than $4 billion in COVID relief dollars. While those dollars are not subject to the expenditure limit they also are one-time monies.
State schools chief Kathy Hoffman wants legislative action.
“Needless cuts will severely hamper school districts’ ability to serve students and help them recover from the effects of the pandemic,’’ said press aide Morgan Dick. “We need serious leadership and meaningful action from lawmakers so our schools can get on to their critical work of providing safe in-person learning for students in their community.’’
Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, said she is personally interested in helping schools avoid a crisis.
“The intention is never to do these kind of draconian cuts,’’ she said.
“As we know right now, many of the schools are struggling already with the COVID issues,’’ Fann said. “We don’t need to pile more on to them right now.’’
House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, agreed for the need to act.
“We expect to address the matter in the upcoming session,’’ he said. And Toma said part of the reason an exemption is needed is “because Republicans have funded K-12 education at record levels.’’
But the current problem is more complex than that.
It goes back to the aggregate expenditure limit that voters approved in 1980 for all K-12 spending statewide. Based on figures at that time, it is adjusted annually for inflation and student growth.
What’s happening this year is largely the convergence of two unusual factors.
First, the limit is always based on last year’s student numbers. Chuck Essigs, lobbyist for the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, estimates that the drop in students in public K-12 education last year, much of that due to COVID, will reduce the spending limit by about $300 million.
But the bigger problem is one that the legislature created in seeking to provide financial help.
In 2000 voters approved Proposition 301 to levy a 0.6-cent sales tax to fund education, including teacher salaries, for 20 years. And voters made those revenues exempt from the aggregate expenditure limit.
With that tax expiring this year, lawmakers in 2018 agreed to a new, identical levy to pick up in July and run until 2041 to keep the money flowing without interruption.
Only thing is, they never exempted what the new levy will raise from the expenditure limit. And that alone accounts for more than $632 million of money now coming in to schools — money they formerly got to spend but, legally speaking, cannot spend this year absent a legislatively approved exemption.
If lawmakers do not act, that starts the process of determining how much each district will lose in spending authority.
Essigs said the way the law is written, anything over the expenditure limit is divided up among all schools, with each forced to reduce spending by the percentage set regardless of how much they were spending.
“If you’re a high-spending district, you have to reduce your budget by 17%,’’ he said. And that same figure also applies to those with lower spending.
“If you’re a district that has a lot of special ed kids, obviously you can spend more because the formula allows you to spend more,’’ Essigs explained. That’s because state law provides a higher level of aid for youngsters with special needs.
But that 17% hit, he said, would come to the total spending authority, “even the part of it that includes special ed students.’’
There’s something else complicating the problem.
To balance the budget in the last decade, lawmakers cut dollars from the “district additional assistance’’ fund, money earmarked for schools to pay for items like books, computers and buses. In fact, that account was zeroed out by Ducey during his first year in office.
That account is now fully funded. But those additional dollars that were restored to schools also helped to push total statewide expenditures above the constitutional limit.
CASA GRANDE — In an effort to deal with a possible surge that could come this winter, the Casa Grande Elementary School District board approved a new policy that allows Superintendent JoEtta Gonzales to make unilateral COVID decisions such as imposing mask mandates.
“It is requested the Board grant authority to the superintendent for all health and safety decisions concerning COVID-19 mitigation,” the agenda item reads. In addition, the mitigation document for CGESD now stipulates mandatory masking within any school seeing a COVID positivity rate above 1% of the student and staff population.
“It’s really hard when you have principals and office staff and our teachers trying to deal with high numbers or a surge,” Gonzales said. “When they are spending all of their time contact tracing instead of providing leadership and services, it really is taxing.”
The decision was made at the board’s meeting on Tuesday. The move came despite significant concerns from parents and community members about executive overreach, and the item was amended to reflect some of their issues: The district’s COVID mitigation and response policy is subject to change depending on state law, and the policy will also be re-assessed on a quarterly basis.
Former district PIO Michael Cruz called the move a “power grab” and “a form of dictatorship” while another parent, Steve Hays, complained that the policy would take decision-making power away from parents.
Gonzales defended her role and disputed the idea that she would ignore community concerns or rule the district by fiat.
“I am fine with the board making decisions,” Gonzales said. “I pride myself on shared leadership and input opportunities. It is a challenge to make everybody happy. Sometimes I have to make hard decisions, but it is not about me and not about power. It is about helping to keep our kids and staff as safe as possible.”
Currently, there is no mask mandate within the district. Gonzales noted that during September, CGESD had 57 positive COVID cases, or around 20 a week.
Ultimately, the board stood behind the superintendent and reiterated their collaborative approach to guiding the district’s policies.
In fact, board President Gilberto Mendez said he had specifically requested to delegate authority to Gonzales due to the fluctuating COVID numbers and to streamline decisions in order to prevent a delayed response, or to have to return to remote learning for the entire student body.
“From day one, Dr. Gonzales has been very transparent with the board,” Mendez said. “She always provides weekly updates to us: good news, bad news, sometimes very ugly news. But I suggested, let’s do this.”
Mendez also called out some community members for what he described as a “political drive-by shooting,” making threatening public comments and then leaving before the board could even discuss the item.
Roughly 300 students are enrolled in CGESD’s online learning program. In-person attendance remains down from prepandemic levels, with a 10% drop in enrollment from that time.
That attendance drop was responsible for a lower 2021-22 budget, down from $4.1 to $3.8 million. Controller Aaron Whittle gave a presentation on the expenditure of budget override and bond funds, including work on the Saguaro Elementary and Casa Grande Middle School campuses. That included COVID infrastructure improvements in district buildings including glass enclosures, water bottle filling stations and security fencing and door lock replacements.
Due to fall break, recognition for some students was pushed to November. However, the board did recognize Cole Rice, a student at Cactus Middle School.
“Cole exemplifies the characteristics he describes in a good leader,” Gonzales said. “We can’t wait to see what the future holds for this amazing young man.”
In addition, members of the local Alpha Delta Kappa chapter, Iota, showed up to recognize the observance of “Alpha Delta Kappa Month” in CGESD. ADK is an honorary fellowship that recognizes women who have worked and excelled in education.
Board members Jerry Stabley and Adelphia Sisson were also recognized for receiving orientation certificates from the Arizona School Boards Association.
The board will meet again on Nov. 9.