For decades, Roosevelt Elementary School District has served as south Phoenix’s economic engine.
In a low-income, minority community, it provided scarce and coveted neighborhood jobs to teachers and principals, as well as custodians, cooks, teaching assistants and secretaries.
Over the years, however, its role as provider has led to overspending and patronage, accompanied by sloppy bookkeeping and poor projections of available cash, state and district officials say. Conflicts arose often between Blacks, once a majority in the area, and Latinos, whose numbers are growing.
The tensions persist on the five-member Roosevelt School Board, which controls jobs and contracts. Over the past 17 years, rotating board members have appointed seven superintendents. Principals have come and gone, sometimes midyear.
In the end, the turmoil was often about who gained access to Roosevelt’s money, who was hired and fired.
Ken Garland walked into the district one Monday in December, ready for a little post-retirement consulting.
He had heard that the district didn’t have an assistant superintendent and, with 26 years in school finance and a doctorate in educational administration, Garland figured he would help out for a few weeks. Roosevelt hadn’t had an assistant superintendent to watch the operating budget for six months.
Four months later, Garland is still there.
He quickly discovered that out of the district’s $62.3 million budget, only $15 million remained. It was headed for a deficit of up to $7 million.
Garland started asking questions and found that getting data out of the district was “a nightmare.”
Hispanic and Black leaders in Roosevelt often accuse each other of hiring friends and relatives instead of the best person for the job.
Kirk Brown, an African-American, was hired in June 2005 as director of the technology department. By November, he had filed a racial-harassment and conflict-of-interest complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Brown claimed board member Ben Miranda told him not to hire Blacks. Miranda acknowledged he paid a visit to Brown and told him people were complaining that he was favoring African-Americans over others in his department.
Brown, in the complaint, raised questions about Miranda voting to promote his girlfriend, Catherine Hernandez, as an assistant principal at Southwest School this school year. Miranda presented a letter from an attorney stating the vote was not a conflict.
Hernandez resigned March 21 from the district to pursue other opportunities. Brown’s contract was not renewed.
Opportunity to change
Roosevelt’s recent want ad speaks to a tempest of change.
The district has “immediate vacancies” for many top positions, including a superintendent, two assistant superintendents, directors of federal programs and teacher training, a chief financial officer, principals, assistant principals, teachers and more.
It is an opportunity to forge new progress. But it also could inflame old conflicts.
“Wow. We have a lot of positions open,” Roosevelt board member Betty Thompson said. She said hiring people to improve student performance is important.
“(But) we do need to make sure there is a balance of culture when we hire for these positions,” she added.
Thompson, one of two Black board members, said she is worried that recent budget cuts and firings included too many African-Americans.
“I see budget cuts that promote exclusion,” Thompson said. “In the end, I see there won’t be that many African-Americans in positions at the district and positions as principals.”
Ben Miranda, who is also a state legislator, said a racial divide has prevented the board from weeding out bad administrators and educators and hiring the best.
As part of the conflicts, he said principals and teachers have viewed students struggling with English as a negative or an excuse to throw up their hands and give up.
“We can’t afford to neglect a minimum of 45 percent of our students,” Miranda said.
Miranda said Roosevelt has a chance to “get something done now.”
“The rules were written by the federal government and the state of Arizona voters. We have to live by them,” Miranda said.
“You know, we deserve to be taken over by the state if we can’t change our ways.”