First-year report card

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.

While 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.

Miles’ 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 matters.

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.


Photo by David Stone 


That 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.

But 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.

Miles 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.

“Frankly, 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 superintendent.”

One 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.

“I 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 level.”

This 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.”

“She’s perceived to have an autocratic style in dealing with people.”

Miles contends that any sort of a “stand-offish” perception is due to her quiet nature.

“I 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 gregarious.”

However quiet or timid she may be, Miles strongly disagrees with the assertion that she is unapproachable and disconnected from the staff.

“That’s 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.’”

Still, 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.

“Yes, 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.”

Miles 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.

Parents 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 their capacities.

“If 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 rarely made.”

Miles 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.

The process of achieving that raise, however, has also been criticized.

Employees 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.

There 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.

“It’s the politics of any organization, I don’t care where it is,” he said.

Miles 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.

“There 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.”

But 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 curve.”

He said Corona has not seen much intervention from Miles in the past year.

“That’s not a bad thing. It’s probably a good thing.”

Duplissis 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.”

But what about Miles’ own perception of her first year as a superintendent?

“We’ve accomplished a lot in this first year, and I’m really pleased about that,” she said.

Going 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.

She pointed to increased AIMS scores as one proof of increasing student achievement.

“But 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.”

She 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 Americans.

With 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.

Efforts 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.

With 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.

“We’re 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,” she said.