TUCSON (KGUN9-TV) - For the first time, Tucson Unified School District Superintendent John Pedicone is explaining why the board found it necessary to ax Sean Arce, the director of its now-suspended Mexican American Studies program. In a statement released Wednesday afternoon, Pedicone describes Arce as being skilled but "unsupportive."
Later board member Miguel Cuevas also issued a statement, calling the decision a "personnel matter," not an attack on the program, and pointing out that the majority of TUSD families have elected not to participate in the Mexican American Studies program.
Those statements follow a tumultuous board meeting on Tuesday night. In what has become a familiar sight, Ethnic Studies supporters descended on the board meeting, attempting to disrupt it with chants. Demonstrators zip-tied themselves to one another and ultimately set off at least one smoke bomb.
But the chaos did not prevent the board from voting to get rid of Arce. In technical terms, it decided not to renew his contract.
In Wednesday's statement, Pedicone explained, "The decision to not renew Sean Arce’s contract was unfortunate because his skills are very valuable in working with students." But Pedicone went on to say, "The Mexican American Studies Department is moving in a new direction as a result of the classes being found out of compliance with state law. Mr. Arce was not supportive of this new direction as required by the Governing Board."
Arce has said the offer of a different job was not firm.
In a session that ran late into the night on Tuesday, one speaker after another praised Arce and demanded his retention.
Teacher Sally Rusk fought back tears as she said, "This is the first time I've spoken at a board meeting and I am moved to because because one of the people I admire most in this world, Sean Arce. I teach at Pueblo Magnet High School and I am a product of TUSD schools and wish that Mexican American Studies existed under the direction of Sean Arce ages ago."
Former Mexican American Studies student Adam Martinez said, "You have a program that produces success. You have teachers who put in effort. You have teachers who actually care. I wasn't a good person. But you know what? Because I had good teachers like Sally Rusk and I had teachers like Sean and Augie Romero, I'm here. I'm not in prison. I'm not dead and I'm not serving jail time."
At one point the chants drove board members from the room. Board president Dr. Mark Stegeman asked, "Anything else board members?" A chant started: "No justice, no peace! No Racist TUSD! No justice, no peace, No Racist TUSD!"
Protestors bound their own wrists with plastic handcuffs and chanted while the board left the room without voting on Arce.
After almost 25 minutes of demonstration, the board returned, and voted 3 to 2 to drop Arce's contract. Adelita Grijalva and Alexandre Sugiyama voted against the resolution, while Stegeman, Hicks and Cuevas voted for non-renewal.
At that, someone in the crowd set off at least one smoke bomb, and demonstrators quickly put on masks they had standing by ready to use. TUSD security officers watched the crowd but allowed protestors to move out when they chose. The demonstration then continued outside.
The vote Tuesday night follows an earlier decision by the board to suspend the controversial Mexican American Studies program. The board did so only after the state found the program to be in violation of a new state law aimed at shutting down TUSD's program, and threatened to withhold millions of dollars in state funding.
In his statement on Wednesday, Pedicone said, "The Mexican American Studies Department continues to be an organizational contributor to TUSD’s commitment to greater academic and social equity for Hispanic students." He said the department will help TUSD work toward its goals of "diversity and student achievement."
Pedicone noted that the board made an effort to allow community access by providing an extended comment period. He acknowledged that someone in the crowd set off a smoke bomb but praised TUSD's safety officers, who he said responded appropriately and "maintained a level of safety while working to identify the person responsible for the act."
Tuscon Police told KGUN9 News on Wednesday that the department is investigating the smoke bomb incident and will file criminal charges if officers can identify those responsible.
In his statement late Wednesday afternoon, Cuevas complained, "... last night MAS supporters stated that I had 'sold out' my ethnicity through an unwillingness to hear differing opinions." Cuevas went on to say, "Over 99.5% of TUSD families consistently opted to not be a part of the courses through the decade they were in existence." He concluded by saying he will support a Mexican American Studies program, and director, that serve more students in the future.
For more on what happened right after the TUSD board meeting, see Kevin Keen's report, which is available at this link.
The full text of the Pedicone and Cuevas statements are available in the "Related documents" section on the left side of this page, beneath the photos.
Correction: an earlier version of this story stated that the vote was 5 to 2. KGUN9 News regrets the typo.