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Kyrene candidates back on campaign trail

By: Jonathan J. Cooper

Sept. 23, 2006

For the second time in eight months, voters in the Kyrene School District will decide this November who will govern the district and set the direction of their children’s education.

Less than a year after his unsuccessful bid to unseat board member Rae Waters in a recall election, newcomer Patrick McGill is challenging incumbents Waters and Ross Robb for one of two available seats on the Governing Board.

Strategies may be different, however, than they were at the time of the recall. All three candidates say they expect a clean campaign and will shun negativity.

“It’s going to be a very constructive campaign,” McGill said.

Saying she feels the recall was personal instead of issue-focused, Waters also is optimistic the lead up to November’s election will follow a more productive path.

“I think (the upcoming election) will be at a higher level, a more issue-driven level, because there are three candidates,” she said.

Robb pledged “no negativity.”

“I don’t think you can say much negative about anybody who is willing to serve on a school board.”

The recall campaign began after a March 2005 school board decision to alter middle-school schedules. The result was an extension of time spent in most core academic classes but a reduction in overall class time for electives such as art and music.

Some parents were frustrated with the changes, saying school board members did not adequately involve them in the process. They organized to launch the recall campaign.

Waters ultimately prevailed in the March 14 recall, earning 53 percent of the vote to McGill’s 47 percent.

The recall promises to make this year an expensive one for Kyrene’s board candidates. McGill and Waters combined to spend almost $15,000 on the recall, much of that from their own pockets, according to campaign finance reports filed with the Maricopa County Recorder’s office.

By contrast, combined spending by the four candidates in the 2004 general election totaled about $4,000.

A lot has changed in Kyrene since the last general election. The middle school schedule changes took effect. A new health-education curriculum was adopted. A new superintendent took over.

This time around some of the old issues will reappear and new ones will emerge, the candidates said.

Chief among those will be communication, redistricting and the decline in student numbers.


Despite district overtures to improve them, communications problems persist in Kyrene, said McGill.

“Communication is one of the main issues on parents’ minds,” McGill said.

In the midst of the recall campaign, the district commissioned a study to investigate its communications effectiveness.

The study found flaws with the district’s internal and external communications structure, which became a key recall campaign issue.

McGill said he will do a better job listening to parents and seeking community input. He said teachers and principals listen to parents’ concerns but that “their hands are tied by the school board.”

“The parents want to be heard,” he said. “I think the school board could foster a better environment to open it up to the parents.”

But Robb and Waters defended the board’s actions, saying the district has made great strides toward improving internal and external communication, such as the hiring last month of a new communications director to facilitate communications with the community, the staff and the media.

“We need to recognize that we’re all trying to do the same thing in the end,” Waters said. “And that’s (providing) quality education for our kids. Everybody’s voices have been heard.”

Both sides acknowledged that a recall favors the incumbent.

Enrollment decline

Since the 2002-03 school year, Kyrene’s enrollment has declined by about five percent, according to numbers provided Jenn Grentz, the district’s communications director.

Because state funding is based largely on enrollment numbers, the district’s revenue decreases with every lost student, Robb said.

“Every school district is trying to do the same thing, which is maximize enrollment,” he said. “The challenge is how to maintain or increase the enrollment and also maintain the quality of education for all the kids.”

The district is already making efforts to curb enrollment declines caused by the district’s aging demographic Kyrene aggressively recruits students from outside the district’s boundaries. Arizona’s open enrollment law allows parents to send their children to any public school with sufficient space, regardless of school or district boundaries.

Grentz said 11 percent of Kyrene’s 18,029 students live outside the district.


In 2005, the legislature created a commission to examine options to draw new school district boundaries that would unify the state’s non-unified districts including Kyrene.

Kyrene is considered a non-unified district because its students attend a separate district for high school.

All three candidates declined to fully support or oppose district unification without an official plan being released, but skepticism was not subtle.

“Can we streamline and make the process better by having just one district instead of two?” McGill said.

“I have an open mind and I think we need to look at the pros and cons of redistricting.”

Robb said he was concerned about the students who would have to deal with the changes during the transition years.

“If it was such a good idea, we would have already been doing it,” he said.

Any district unification plan would ultimately go to the voters. Waters said it would be crucial for voters to educate themselves on the issue.

“I hope people pay attention to the details,” she said.

“There could be a lot of unintended consequences.”

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