In a controversial and chaotic meeting, the Tucson Unified School District governing board voted 3 to 2 not to renew the contract of the co-founder and director of its Mexican American Studies program.
Sean Arce says he is not surprised his contract wasn’t renewed. He attributes the decision to the leadership of TUSD’s board and the political climate in Arizona. Arce has been a supporter of the Mexican American Studies classes and has spoken out against TUSD's governing board at public events.
Board members Adelita Grijalva and Alexandre Sugiyama voted to keep Arce. Board President Mark Stegeman, Michael Hicks and Miguel Cuevas voted not to renew his contract.
Stegeman expanded the call to the audience part of the meeting from the usual 45 minutes to three hours.
Dozens, including teachers, parents and students in the TUSD, community leaders and University of Arizona professors and graduate students, spoke in support of Arce and against the board, particularly Hicks, who recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Hicks says in the interview that he based his decision to end the Mexican American Studies classes on “hearsay.”
Hicks did not address the audience and declined an interview request by Arizona Public Media Tuesday.
Just before 11 p.m., students stood up, tied themselves together with plastic ties and chanted "no justice, no peace, no racist TUSD," causing board members to leave the room for close to an hour.
Stegeman asked the students and protestors to be quiet in order to resume the meeting and go on with the vote. Grijalva told other board members to think about the consequences before firing Arce.
"We've managed to disrespect the entire Latino community and made it about 'us' versus 'them,'" Grijalva said. "This is going to hurt us."
After the vote, students set off a smoke bomb. There were no injuries.
The governing board voted 4 to 1 to shut down the Mexican American Studies classes on Jan. 10. Grijalva was the only board member who voted to keep the classes, but other board members cited concerns with losing up to $14 million in state funding if the classes continued.
Although the classes were shut down, the Mexican American Studies program remained in place. With Arce gone, the future of the program is unknown.
TUSD's Superintendent John Pedicone released a statement Wednesday saying Arce declined an offer to remain in the district in another administrative position "thus leading to the decision not to renew his contract."
Pedicone says the meeting was indicative of how change can sometimes be contentious. "Last night's meeting was a difficult one for all involved," Pedicone says in the letter. "The decision to not renew Sean Arce's contract was unfortunate because his skills are very valuable in working with students."
Arce plans to finish his Ph.D. at the University of Arizona and stay involved in education as a consultant, he said after the meeting.
At about 6 p.m. when the governing board went into executive meeting before the public meeting, community organizations gave out free burritos outside the TUSD offices.
The burrito idea came from Hicks’ interview on The Daily Show where he expressed concerns with a weekly tradition where teachers bought burritos for students in the Mexican American Studies classes, says Kat Rodriguez, with Derechos Humanos.
Members of Las Adelitas Arizona, Save Ethnic Studies, and Derechos Humanos made 250 burritos and wrapped them with flyers calling for Hicks recall.
“Hicks’ performance was historic to say it in a kind way, I think we should expect more of our board members and his comments were ignorant,” Rodriguez says. “We’re not giving up our program and we’re not giving up our burritos just because somebody is afraid of them.”