The ROX Interview: Jill Broussard

Association of Education Service Agencies Executive Council. Jill Broussard is President-Elect for 2019.

Interview by Bea Lueck

GC LIVING: We’re here today with Jill Broussard, the Pinal County superintendent of schools. What is a county school superintendent and how are you different than the district superintendents?

Jill Broussard: That’s a great question. (laughs) A lot of people are confused, thinking that I am over the superintendents for the 19 districts within Pinal County, but it’s not that. We really act as a service organization to the districts within the county. We provide professional development, financial services, and cut the checks for the teachers and all school employees. We have the accountants and the districts submit their expenditures and whatnot. We help make sure they’re balancing correctly with the county treasurer, and that everything is accurate. Our office is also a pass-through for some federal and state funds.

We also have an accommodation district. It’s called Mary C. O’Brien Accommodation District and has an elementary school that’s K-6, as well as a high school, Villa Oasis, that works as an alternative high school for students who need some additional support to graduate.

GC LIVING: Is it educational support or emotional-behavioral?

Jill Broussard: We like to support all the students’ needs, but a lot of times these students have either been in juvenile detention, or perhaps were not succeeding at their other schools. Maybe they’ve dropped out and want to come back or they are a teen parent or homeless. We also have quite a few students who come to the Villa because they like the small class sizes in our program. Traditionally, I hear in the community that it was known as the high school for bad kids and that’s not the case at all. We have a lot of great kids over there, and some exciting stuff happening with them.

On top of that, I assist the districts in any way that I can. We can organize consortiums for different services to make them more affordable for our districts. The County School Superintendent is also tasked if a board member on any of the school boards is unable to complete their term, my office interviews and appoints someone to that position until the next election.

We also have the juvenile detention facility in Florence, and we’re responsible for the education of those youth there, as well as any youth at the jail facility who have been remanded as adults.

GC LIVING: So just because they are currently detained, they are not relieved of going to school?

Jill Broussard: That’s right. And we’re not relieved of the duty, we have to educate them. That can be very challenging, because we have students who are, let’s say, 11 years old to 18 years old, and even higher if they have an individual education plan for special education. They’re all in the same class together, and we have a limited number of teachers, and we have to meet all of those needs academically. We also have a transition program that helps teach them how to budget, do job interviews, explore additional job skills training…

GC LIVING: Basic life skills.

Jill Broussard: Yes, that was my big project when I first came on, revamping that program, because they were going to school four hours a day, which is the requirement, but I extended the day to six hours, and we developed a transition program for those students, and it was really exciting, because those students … And some of them have been in detention several times. But those students started asking “Can we have school on Saturdays too?” And they really enjoyed what they were learning. We have some guest speakers come in and talk to them. That is a huge source of pride for me, because I want to make sure those kids aren’t forgotten. And it also relieves a burden from our taxpayers and communities if we educate and prepare them for the workforce.

GC LIVING: Well, the better educated they are as youth, the lower the rate of recidivism.

Jill Broussard: That’s right. And occasionally, you’ll have a student come in who’s maybe 17 and has five credits, because they haven’t been to school in so many years. And when we receive a student like that, we don’t want to say waste their time, but we don’t spend a lot of time on capturing credits in order for graduation, because the reality is, if they’re there for 18 days, we’re not going to get them much closer to graduation. So we’ll put them on a GED path, and help them get their GED. We really look at each individual student, because they come in at so many different education levels.

GC LIVING: So what are some of the challenges you face? You said earlier that you put together curriculum enhancements for the districts. How does that work?

Jill Broussard: For example, right now there’s an online curriculum, with benchmarking and whatnot, that the districts would like to use, that’s aligned with our standards right now. We can work with the vendor and say “we have a volume of districts, that would like this, and can we get some special pricing because of the volume? The districts can pitch in and we have this great program at a great price, or a much more affordable price for the districts than if they secured the program individually.

And that helps keep our money in the district for other tasks. We really need to stretch that dollar as far as we can. Not just because of funding, but also because it’s taxpayer dollars.

GC LIVING: Now as far as curriculum, you’re not over the curriculum at each individual district. That’s up to the district to establish.

Jill Broussard: That’s right. I’m going to use a buzzword here, and … (laughs) that’s local control. Your school board makes decisions, based on recommendations from the staff and the administration.

GC LIVING: What do you think, personally, as an educator, on teaching to the test?

Jill Broussard: Personally as an educator, because I am a teacher, it’s inevitable. Because the tests are aligned with our standards. We’re teaching those standards. And if it’s a good test that’s aligned with our standards, it’s all one and the same. There are examples where districts or counties have put too-large an emphasis on the results of those standardized tests. And if you do that, then you have the issue with teachers and students and staff being overly concerned with specifics of what is on the test. There are many steps that safeguard to make sure that as teachers, we don’t have access to those tests ahead of time, so that we can specifically teach to those questions.

When you have such a heavy emphasis on test results, where a large portion of the teacher’s salary or 301 money is contingent upon their students and the success that they have on the test, then you could have that issue. But I think that good teachers, who teach to the standards, paired with a supportive administration who gives them great training and a good curriculum, and you have a good test that’s asking questions based on the standards, then really there’s no reason to be overly concerned about that.

GC LIVING: What do you feel, personally as an educator, on Common Core?

Jill Broussard: This is a tough one. There’s some great aspects of Common Core, because we’re teaching our students to become problem solvers. There are some aspects that cause a lot of frustration with the public and teachers who have traditional math training. Historically, there was our old method of doing math, which is still accurate and it works. I learned it that way too, your rote memorization type of formulas and whatnot. What I like about the Common Core math is they still teach us formulas, but they pull apart and explain to the kids why it’s done this way, and what it means, rather than just memorizing it. So that they can apply it in other areas. Our traditional math was really only understood by less than 70 percent of the population. So less than 70 percent of the population really understood why they were doing what they were doing, or were successful at memorizing formulas and what they mean, and when to use them. So the Common Core math actually addressed the other 30 percent of the population and said, “Oh, you know what, here’s some other ways to solve this same problem.”

What I don’t like is when teachers count work incorrectly if a student understands it in a different way and when they come to the same accurate conclusion with a different method, because I feel like that’s what we’re really trying to get at, you know? There’s more than one way to get to this answer. We’re giving you the tools, several tools, to get to that answer, and you should be able to – in my opinion – get to that answer anyway you want. We’re teaching you several ways of doing this.

GC LIVING: You touched briefly on 301 funds for educators. And at the end of the day, that was voter initiated. Does it help to hold teacher’s feet to the fire, so to speak, or are we handcuffing our educators as most of them do not get to select their students. Is their paycheck tied to the success of every student in the class?

Jill Broussard: Yes, but not necessarily the same scores. There’s different aspects of 301, and showing a year’s growth for the student is part of it. When I taught kindergarten, I would have students come in who didn’t know their colors, didn’t know the letters in their name, let alone the entire alphabet, and then I had students who were coming in and who could read. Occasionally I would have one come in who’s reading chapter books already. You might have a larger discrepancy, but have to look at each student individually. So yes, I think that we should tie 301 money to the success of every one of those 30 students in the classroom. It doesn’t take 301 money for most teachers to be invested. We need to ensure that we are looking at each student individually, and we’re dedicated to their success.

GC LIVING: “Red for Ed” has been in the national news.

Jill Broussard: I heard it was the largest teacher strike in history.

GC LIVING: Because I like investigating things, and I like numbers, because of some of the figures being bandied about on Facebook, I pulled the funding numbers for every district, every school in the state. There is a huge disparity, from a low of $4,000 to over $24,000 per year per student. I distinctly remember several years ago voting on school equalization funding.

Jill Broussard: Yes.

GC LIVING: Math tells me, four does not equal 24. How do we make this a more even playing field? Even within Pinal County, we had anywhere from a low of $6,000 to over $21,000 per student at Sacaton.

Jill Broussard: When you look at Sacaton, that has to do with the fact that they’re on the reservation. So they receive additional funding from the tribe for that.

GC LIVING: OK, I’ll use two similar districts. Casa Grande is $6,000 and change per student while Coolidge is $9,000 and change. It’s a significant difference.

Jill Broussard: There’s so many different buckets for funding. They get the same amount from the state, and that’s a set amount per student. But then you have your bonds and your overrides. And if your voters pass that, so that’s why your more affluent areas, not that Coolidge is more affluent than Casa Grande, but that’s typically why you’re going to see a huge disparity between communities.

So you would think, “Hey, well, it’s not that much more if we pass this bond or this override,” but historically, over the last 10 years, we weren’t getting any bonds or overrides passed in any community here in Pinal County. The last two voting cycles, we have started to see more public support of the schools, and I think a lot of times there’s a misunderstanding as to what an override is. Or even a bond. A bond has a specific purpose in mind – a fixed asset purchase. Our bus fleet is aging, and those buses are about $225,000 apiece, give or take. And for example, they have 60 buses. But let’s say they need to replace 10. And they need to start replacing 10 every two years on a cycle. This is huge. You don’t have that capacity in your budget. You don’t have the ability to do that. So they want to pass a bond, so that they can do that.

Then there’s your override. That doesn’t mean that your school blew their budget. It means that they want more capacity in their budget. Each year you have this certain capacity that you’ve got to stay within.

GC LIVING: Schools are legislated on the maximum capacity that they can tax and they can spend. So the overrides allow them to locally alter what is mandated by statute.

Jill Broussard: That’s right. So if you wanted to start a new program, or add new teachers, that’s when you look at an override. A lot of times it has to do with the fact that our district’s additional assistance has been cut. Governor Ducey’s plan is working on restoring that. Our building renewal funds have been taken away. An example would be Villa Oasis High School. We had a classroom with a mold issue because of a leak. We don’t have money in our budget to repair that. So now we have to put together an application for the state’s School Facilities Board and ask them to fund our repair so we can have our classroom back. And then they decide whether or not they will fund that, and then, a little side note on that. We did get funded for that, it was repaired, and then we still had issues. And when we went back and said, “We still have issues,” they said, “Well, we already funded that and completed that project for you.” So for a year or two, until we were able to incrementally work on that problem, that beautiful classroom, that was basically brand new at this point, was a storage room, because we don’t want to expose our staff and our kids to mold or anything like that. So that’s frustrating … like when my high school needed a new gym floor because it was peeling and we have no money in our budget. When you don’t have those funds on hand, then you consider an override.

GC LIVING: If you look back at state funding for education over the last 10, 15, 20 years, it’s been a steady decline. Things are turning around, but it took a pretty radical move on the part of the teachers to say, “We’ve had enough.” What do you see coming in the future for Arizona education overall, and then specifically, Pinal County education? Are we seeing funding restored to 2008 levels yet?

Jill Broussard: Boy, wouldn’t that be great? No, not yet, but I definitely think we’re on the right track. I personally was very excited to see the governor, when he came out with this 20 percent by 2020. I felt he also made a good-faith effort in promising to increase our district additional assistance funds, which can be used in a number of ways. I’m seeing a growing support for our public schools here in Arizona where I didn’t see that just a few years ago. I think the strike made this issue very public, even to those who are totally removed from the education world. And I hope that will continue. We need to understand that our state doesn’t have an unlimited amount of capital. I see lots of growth in Arizona and lots of companies looking at coming here. It’s really a catch-22, we’re not getting a lot of businesses to relocate here, maybe because of the funding levels of education and the quality of schools. At the same time we have better quality and it draws more industry in, which in turn helps our funding levels. I’m an eternal optimist and I really see the signs that we’re getting some.

GC LIVING: Some have said that it’s a political ploy and there really hasn’t been an established funding mechanism put into place. So if funds are allocated for the classroom, is it robbing it from support staff or buildings?

Jill Broussard: In some instances, yes it is.

GC LIVING: Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul?

Jill Broussard: I think that’s been the case. If you were following the Red for Ed movement, and you’re reading anything that was coming from a lot of the education leaders in the state, everybody was really wary, “Okay, they’re giving us money, but where are they going to take it from? The teachers want more, they gonna cut that DAA increase out.” But, I feel pretty confident saying I didn’t see that happening. So, with the increase to the DAA funds, that means we couldn’t give our support staff raises. The DAA funds will help supplement some of those additional things that come along with raising the teacher salaries. One of the issues that some of our local schools here in Pinal County faced was “Now I have teachers who are going to be getting paid more than their principal” and that’s an issue. We were going to try to work on that. They’re not necessarily considered support staff, they’re considered administration, and everybody hesitates at throwing more money at administration because that takes away from your classroom dollars.

GC LIVING: That’s something that has been bandied in the media and on social media – “Schools are administration heavy.” Are you in favor of consolidating districts and going to more of a unified district model?

Jill Broussard: Yes, and I touted that when I was campaigning. Then I realized what a huge task that would be. Not to mention you have these small local communities that have been at odds with other local communities close to them. It’s not as simple as it looks. In fact, we did a partial consolidation between Florence and Coolidge a couple of years ago. We were the first in the state. It was a learning experience, even at the state level. Florence acquired three of the Coolidge schools in the San Tan Valley area from Coolidge.

Now you have taxpayers who voted for a bond, or an override, for the Coolidge district, but now they’re going to be part of the Florence Unified School district. But the district still has this amount of debt to pay off from the building of the schools. It was a huge project and they wound up with three schools for far less than they would have spent building another high school in San Tan Valley.

GC LIVING: The salaries of the superintendents range from the low end of the scale at zero in the smaller districts to just over $250,000 a year in the two mega-districts of Sunnyside and Tucson Unified. That sounds like an outrageous amount until you consider there are 43,000 students in each district and the cost per student is very low.

Jill Broussard: And how much they are saving by having such a large district, right? That’s one of those things where you look at it from both angles. Think about the consortiums we form in order to get better pricing. When you look at a district like Tucson Unified, they don’t need a consortium, they are their own consortium. You have benefits, but you also lose some of that local direction and impact. A superintendent who the kids know and respect, and who has a pulse on their families and their community, is really very valuable. There are states all over the country who have districts that are per county. However, like Ohio, or Michigan, they may have 112 counties in their state. Florida and Maryland are examples of states that have county wide school districts. Ohio has 88 counties, Michigan has 80. Michigan has 501 school districts!

GC LIVING: Pinal County, at 5,500 square miles, is approximately the size of Connecticut.

Most people don’t realize our county is larger than several states. In addition, districts have very unique challenges. The Casa Grande school districts, their boundaries cover 420 odd square miles.

Jill Broussard: Because I travel to all the districts in the county and I go out and I see each community as unique. When I have to do a board appointment to fill a vacancy on the board, it’s invaluable to me to reach out to community members and listen to them because small towns have their politics and we need to hear them. That’s invaluable. I think it would just lose so much of its authenticity (if we consolidated to a county wide district). I love Pinal County and our rural areas and how unique each one is. I would hate to lose that.

GC LIVING: Now you mentioned it briefly, you are not appointed, you are elected. Why do we elect county school superintendents?

Jill Broussard: That is what was written into the Arizona Constitution. It is a partisan position, but to me, education is a nonpartisan issue. I think we should all support education Not every state has a county school superintendent.

GC LIVING: So what made you decide to run for office?

Jill Broussard: I have a lot of faith and was encouraged by others. I had never been involved with politics, and just in a conversation with someone and they encouraged me to do it, and I kind of laughed and scoffed and said, “No, I’m not qualified to do that”. (laughs) And honestly I never wanted to do anything but be in the classroom.

And then I was elected. I was tucking my son in that election night, and my best friend and my husband were downstairs and I heard them whooping and hollering. I purposely took longer tucking in my son because I didn’t want to go down and face the fact that, “Holy cow, what does this even mean for me and my family?” What it ended up meaning for my family was the opportunity to help more students than I could in the classroom. I am honored that I get to be the voice of Rural Arizona Education. That I get to advocate for teachers, staff and students… including my own children.

GC LIVING: Do you miss the classroom?

Jill Broussard: Oh my gosh, yes, I missed the classroom. But thankfully I have the ability to go into a classroom and, and interact with the kids. I even thought about getting my substitute certificate, and being on call, but my schedule is all over the place. I’m not sure I could be reliable.

GC LIVING: If you could get out your fairy godmother magic wand and change one element of education, what would you change?

Jill Broussard: I think I would change family support and engagement. Because it would go such a long way, not just for their kids, but for their local districts and their teachers if we had more parents involved and engaged in their kids’ schools and education, sitting down with them every night and doing homework, and having that discussion, and that time with each other, would create more understanding between teachers and parents. There’d be less parents leaving the phrasing and moral development aspect of their children’s lives to the teachers and taking more of an active role in their development. I think there’s a huge disconnect now between parents and their kids.

It’s priceless, and it goes so far, and it develops a well-rounded child. It teaches them priorities and responsibility, and if every parent could have that conversation with her child about why school is important… I think that would be the one thing I could change.

Jill Broussard
Pinal County Superintendent of Schools