Affable or elitist? Teachers rate TUHSD chief's job performance
By Jonathan Cooper
Now that Superintendent Shirley Miles has completed her first year with the Tempe Union High School District, reaction to her year-one job performance is mixed among the district’s faculty and staff.
some describe the district’s top manager as affable and low-key, others
speak more skeptically, saying she’s unapproachable and responsible for
an elitist attitude that they feel has permeated the district.
supporters say she keeps a low profile, focusing primarily on the business
aspect of the district and leaving the education up to the principals.
They say she is firm with the district office staff and savvy on financial
Her most highly praised financial move, lauded even by many of her critics, was the elimination of Tempe High School’s year-round school calendar. That calendar has for years been the subject of faculty derision because of the added costs it required. The district was on the hook for an extra month of air-conditioning and staffing expenses, among other costs.
business-focused, cost-cutting approach can likely be traced to Miles’
business background. After an injury forced her to end a five-year career
performing with a dance company, Miles earned undergraduate degrees in history
and business and an MBA. She then spent several years in the corporate arena
before moving into education and earning a Ph.D. in curriculum.
that business background has also been a subject of criticism by some teachers,
who feel Miles, with only five years in the classroom, lacks the experience
necessary to understand the real challenges that educators face.
says her time in the business world is a good thing, noting that she has spent
17 years in education, but only 10 in business.
I think it’s a good balance,” she said. “My art background, my business
background and my education background all help me be a better
TUHSD teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, was critical of the way the
district is run, saying the atmosphere in the district office has shifted from
that of an educational institution to that of a large corporation, with a
“sense of elitism and classism” emanating from the top.
think that is an issue because Dr. Miles seems to be very concerned with title,
chain of command and authority and treats people accordingly,” the teacher
said. “She obviously has her Ph.D. If you have a Ph.D. she treats you at that
creates, the teacher said, a feeling that secretaries have no business mingling
in the realm of the executive team, which is a departure from the culture of a
year ago under which, according to the teacher, all district office staff felt
equally free to voice their feelings and concerns. As a result, the teacher
said, Miles is “unapproachable, unattached.”
perceived to have an autocratic style in dealing with people.”
contends that any sort of a “stand-offish” perception is due to her quiet
think it just takes time to get to know me,” she said. “But I would say
I’m pretty quiet at first, so I could see where they might get that feeling.
But I do attend a lot of the concerts and athletic events, and more and more
people are getting to know me and when they see me I think they feel more
comfortable. But yes, I could see how they’d see that, because I’m not
quiet or timid she may be, Miles strongly disagrees with the assertion that she
is unapproachable and disconnected from the staff.
funny because I think people would say that I was approachable; that my door is
always open. I’ve met with everybody who has called me and said, ‘Shirley,
can I meet with you? I have some concerns.’”
Miles is praised for a number of traits. She is described as a very
policy-driven manager—in a positive way, one critic said—who is working
under a system of vague and ambiguous policies, making it difficult for faculty
and staff to interpret their rules, regulations and rights.
I am tightening the policies and procedures and I’m proud of that,” Miles
said. “That’s a consistency for our students and a consistency for our
employees, which is critical.”
said she has been working on the ongoing process of tightening both the policies
themselves and their enforcement. She said too many policy exceptions have been
granted in the past, calling such exceptions a form of discrimination because
they amount to special treatment.
often seek boundary exceptions from TUHSD to allow their children to attend
schools outside their own boundaries. Most often, that’s allowed under state
law. But for two TUHSD schools, Corona del Sol and Desert Vista, boundary
exceptions are rarely, if ever, granted because the schools are already beyond
we just did it because of who you know or make an exception because a parent
came to us to complain, that really is discriminatory,” she said. “So we
just have to follow what the policies and procedures are. That doesn’t mean we
can’t make (an exception). They just have to follow process, and they’re
has also been praised for her success in securing a raise for the district’s
teachers. All staff across the board was given a two percent raise, in addition
to the typical raises earned with service in the district and extended
education. Teachers were also given a 1.75 percent stipend increase—money that
comes from Proposition 301, a voter initiative passed in 2000.
process of achieving that raise, however, has also been criticized.
close to the salary negotiations said teachers were given little input into
their pay policies and were far more insulated from the process than they had
been in previous years.
was “no mutual give and take like there used to be,” said one employee on
the condition of anonymity, adding that the lack of communication between
district administrators and teachers seemed to be more driven by the desires of
the school board than by the superintendent herself.
the politics of any organization, I don’t care where it is,” he said.
responds that she is “willing to give and take,” but says she is responsible
for ensuring that the district remains on solid financial footing and that she
was very open about the district’s money situation throughout the process.
isn’t much money,” she said with a laugh. “They can look and see where
they can save more money, and I would be happy to hear what they have to say.”
Mark Duplissis, assistant principal at Corona, had nothing but praise for Miles,
noting that for anyone stepping into a new position—particularly a position
that hadn’t been vacant in more than a decade—there is a “big learning
said Corona has not seen much intervention from Miles in the past year.
not a bad thing. It’s probably a good thing.”
said he hasn’t noticed the elitist atmosphere that some teachers had mentioned
and said all of his interactions with Miles, many of which concern his ongoing
work toward a doctoral degree, were “very positive.”
what about Miles’ own perception of her first year as a superintendent?
accomplished a lot in this first year, and I’m really pleased about that,”
in, the school board had identified three goals for the first year: 100 percent
efficient use of funds; increase student achievement and hire highly qualified
staff. Miles said accomplishing those goals has been her biggest focus.
pointed to increased AIMS scores as one proof of increasing student achievement.
what pleases me more,” she said, “is that we‘ve narrowed the achievement
gap across ethnicities. And that’s critical so that’s been our focus.”
added that her business background has been crucial to striving toward the
efficient fund use goal, but added that the district continues to face funding
difficulties and is a victim to the same economic trends that hurt individual
oil prices skyrocketing in the past few weeks, Miles said the price of the
diesel fuel used in school buses has risen astronomically since school started.
The district budgeted for increased fuel costs, but it’s doubtful district
officials predicted the rapid and enormous increases that have arisen.
toward the third goal, attaining a highly qualified faculty, have focused
primarily on retention, Miles said, adding that retention is often more
difficult than recruitment for districts nationwide.
the ink still drying and the words still floating on Miles’ first year
assessment, year two is now underway. The biggest challenges this year will
again be budget-focused, as the district faces a cut in state utility funds, a
possible loss of $4 million for vocational education, rising transportation
costs, and a push to redistribute $4.9 million into classrooms.
trying to gear up and review and research what we can do to streamline and also
work with our legislators on what we’re going to do for the 2006-2007 year,”