Serving without pay, he took the time to run, understand district
Over the 20 years that he served on the Tucson Unified School District board, we’ve had some differences with Joel T. Ireland.
But we never have doubted Ireland’s commitment to TUSD. He spent two decades attending meetings, reading reams of material, studying budgets and working with students, administrators, teachers, staff and parents – in a job that pays absolutely nothing.
Ireland didn’t run last fall for a sixth four-year term on the board. Instead, he stepped down last week.
Over the past 20 years, Ireland has taken on a responsibility that few are willing to shoulder. Just last fall, there were three candidates for three seats on the TUSD board. Everyone who was interested “won” a seat – no election required.
But Ireland spent the time needed to understand and help run a district with 120-plus schools and 60,000 students.
Serving on a local school board is a difficult and thankless job. The state allocates operating and capital funds, and districts are forced to make decisions with inadequate resources.
The topic that dominated Ireland’s decades on the school board is a desegregation order – which went into effect a decade before he took office.
The order was imposed after a federal judge ruled that minority children did not have access to the same educational opportunities offered to white children.
Largely because of Ireland’s work, the district is on the verge of being released from the order. Giving a federal judge control of part of the district’s operations imposed another layer of regulations facing Ireland and his colleagues on the board.
Ireland also played key roles in a couple of TUSD initiatives that gave all students a better chance of success.
Before the state paid for it, TUSD offered full-day kindergarten – an important tool that gives students a strong start in their early years. He also was instrumental in a lower class size initiative the board started a few years ago. Class sizes have since inched up because of financial problems out of the board’s control.
As he left the board, Ireland had some valuable advice:
“It is the worst possible kind of governance when the board is making management-level personnel and operational decisions,” Ireland said. “To be effective, a school board must stick to policy-level decisions. The superintendent can either spend her time satisfying the needs of the five board members or improving achievement in the district. It seems like a clear choice.”
Indeed it does. Ireland’s successors would do well to learn from his 20 years of dedication and experience.