The Mesa Unified School District student body has undergone a major demographic shift in recent years. Its elected leaders have not.
As Hispanic students near a majority, the governing board members remain as white as ever. There has never been a Latino elected to any office in Mesa, including the school board.
In last year’s race for three open seats, west Mesa parent and Latina activist Carmen Guerrero finished fourth.
The Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens, of which Guerrero is a member, thinks it’s time the school district adopt a system like the one used to elect Mesa City Council members, in which candidates must run in the geographical districts where they reside. A district with a majority-Hispanic population would likely be created, perhaps leading to a better opportunity to elect a Latino, although very few have run.
Guerrero says she is not necessarily in favor of such a system, but she does see the need for families of different ethnicities and backgrounds to have more of a say on the board than they do now.
"I didn’t want to be branded as the Hispanic candidate. I’m just as much a champion for Native Americans and the poor as Hispanic," says Guerrero, who lives near Westwood High School, the district’s most ethnically and economically diverse high school.
But she and other association leaders also point out that by 2008, the Mesa school district is projected to be a majorityminority district — with Latinos the largest minority group.
"Even though I have respect for all the (current board) members and I know they want the best for Mesa schoolchildren, they do not have the same level of understanding of what’s happening in the Latino community," Guerrero says.
The board has never discussed changing its representation and sees no need to have that discussion now. Board members, most of whom live in attendance areas for the more white, middle-class and affluent Dobson and Mountain View high schools, maintain it’s best when a school board represents all students without a regard to one geographic area or ethnic group.
They worry that a geographical system would fragment the board and district and hinder efforts to ensure that all children receive the best education possible.
"I’m not saying I don’t want representation from certain areas, but I think a district system would be harmful," says board member Elaine Miner, who lives in the Mountain View attendance area in north-central Mesa. "You need a strong desire to be there to want to help the kids, not because it’s a political steppingstone or one community needs some representation."
Board members point out that even with an established district system in the November 2004 election, there’s no guarantee that Guerrero would have been elected.
"I don’t see this as a huge issue for the school board," says Cindi Hobbs, who, as board president at the time, appointed Guerrero to the district’s curriculum committee the day after the election. "I don’t think one particular Hispanic, whoever it may be, will represent all of the Hispanics."
Hobbs adds: "We don’t have different issues — we want all children to have the best resources and we all benefit from that. It isn’t like the Westwood area has different concerns than say the Red Mountain (High School) area. The concerns are all the same. We want kids to be successful, (and) we want great, wonderful buildings and to provide resources for the kids to be successful."
The desire for all children to be successful may be the same at Westwood and Red Mountain, but students and teachers at Red Mountain do not face certain challenges to the same degree as Westwood.
Westwood, with a 58 percent minority enrollment, takes in students from some of Mesa’s poorest neighborhoods, while Red Mountain, in northeast Mesa, is 18 percent minority and has a more affluent student body. At Westwood, 75 percent of families speak primarily English. At Red Mountain, that figure is 95 percent.
The two schools have similar dropout rates — 2.30 percent at Red Mountain and 2.38 percent at Westwood — but districtwide, Latino students are more likely to drop out of school than their white classmates. The white dropout rate: 2.86 percent. The Hispanic rate: 4.02 percent.
Guerrero maintains the dropout rates in the Hispanic community are not because of intellectual dysfunction, but because the students feel alienated by the system.
"The educational system as it stands is very dishonorable to the Latino student," Guerrero says. "They don’t honor their language or culture, and (they) say, ‘Forget everything and learn now to speak English. I don’t want you to understand all of that; I just want you to score high on a test.’ It’s a very scary proposition, and children feel very intimidated."
Governing board president Mike Hughes, who has served on the board for 11 years, also is concerned about the district’s Hispanic children — in particular, those who are attending alternative schools for students with behavioral or discipline problems. At two of those schools, Mesa Vista High School and McKellips Middle School, dropout rates for Hispanics are 14.85 percent and 11.97 percent respectively. Mesa Vista is 44.2 percent Latino, while McKellips is 51 percent Latino.
"We have high percentages of Hispanic kids in these alternative schools, but are they getting their needs met? We need to find a way to make those schools stronger academically," Hughes says. "We’ve had this type of approach for many, many, many years. But are there other things we could be doing?"
Would the school board be farther along in that discussion had a Latino been on the board for the past several years?
"I would certainly like to feel like I represent everybody," Hughes says. "But from the perspective of the Hispanic community, would they feel (the discussion) would be farther along? That’s a great question."
That said, Hughes does not think the board should change from at-large to geographical representation. "I really think it will be a short matter of time and there will be a Hispanic member on the board," he says, adding that the current board "is in tune with the growing changes demographically in Mesa."
Lynn Burnham, elected to the board in 2004, has experienced the change firsthand. He attended Emerson Elementary School, Carson Junior High School and graduated from Westwood High School in 1976, when the school was about 95 percent white. He says his children have attended the same schools, which now have burgeoning minority populations.
"It’s different than when I attended but I think it’s still good," Burnham says. "From my perspective, being able to associate with a wide variety of different kinds of people is good and helps kids appreciate diversity.
"(The changes) are a positive thing for Westwood. If there’s a negative thought, it’s not from within Westwood. There are those outside who see it and perceive it as a negative thing, but most who live within Westwood see it as a positive thing."
Burnham, board member Richard Crandall and the rest of the board say district staff are doing a good job of developing programs and adjusting to meet the needs of the changing Mesa community. They point out that two of Mesa’s three area assistant superintendents — Ken Salas and Hector Benitez — are Hispanic.
For many Latinos, however, it’s not the same thing as having a voice on the elected school board.
"It’s an issue when the district is approaching 50 percent Hispanic and parents and students don’t see any (Hispanic) person on the board," Guerrero says. "People feel they are not represented and issues are not brought to the table. There is no one there that can empathize and understand."
Miner points out that the district isn’t just Hispanic and white, and the board should be considerate of all diversity.
"If I went in and said, ‘I’m here just to represent the white population,’ you can imagine what would happen," she says.