Two incumbents and two newcomers are vying for three spots on the Flagstaff Unified School District Governing Board this year, aiming to bring positive changes in areas including diversity and equity to the district over the course of a four-year term.
Board member Christine Fredericks is seeking a third term, while member Carole Gilmore is seeking a second. Joining them on the ballot this year is Dorothy Denetsosie Gishie and Makaius Marks, who say their experiences being Navajo and living in the Flagstaff area have provided firsthand knowledge of diversity and accessibility issues in local schools.
Denetsosie Gishie is a 33-year Flagstaff resident and an FUSD parent with two daughters who have already graduated from high school and a son who is currently a sophomore. She has worked as a counselor, social worker and program manager at Native Americans for Community Action (NACA) for 30 years.
As an FUSD parent, she said she understands both the frustrations and triumphs of having a child in the public school system; she first had the idea to run for the school board because of her son’s struggles with remote classes this spring as a result of internet connectivity issues from the family’s Doney Park home. She said the school system should not be one-size-fits-all, but should have resources and programs to fit students who have different needs and goals.
“My vision is to foster a well-rounded, safe, and culturally appropriate and welcoming environment for our students to prepare them for the changing economy and workforce,” she said.
At 19 years old, Makaius Marks is eager to use his age as an advantage to better represent local students because he remembers what it was like to be an FUSD student and he believes younger students may feel more comfortable speaking with him than with older board members. He graduated from Flagstaff High School in 2019 and is now attending Northern Arizona University, where he is majoring in Applied Indigenous Studies. While in high school, he served as a student representative to the FUSD Governing Board on several occasions and spoke in various other community settings, including at Flagstaff City Council meetings regarding topics such as Indigenous Peoples Day.
If elected, Marks said he will strive to incorporate more diverse voices into FUSD governance by attending Navajo and Hopi chapter meetings and also working to provide more opportunities for individuals to share their perspectives with the board. He explained that if the board is willing and able to seek out these opinions, being more involved in other Flagstaff communities such as Bellemont and Doney Park will follow.
“When we focus on how we show up for an indigenous population and students of color, it just means a greater quality of education for everyone, especially if that education is really focused on our community,” Marks said.
Fredericks has lived in Flagstaff for 16 years and was a teacher for 14 years, half of which were spent at Tuba City High School as an English teacher. During the time since she was first elected to the board in 2012, Fredericks said she has continued to learn and grow. She desires to continue serving on the school board because she enjoys it and said her work in education feels far from over.
Of the board’s work she would like to continue, she mentioned its recent efforts to implement restorative justice, a more collaborative way to address behavior concerns than punishment, and initiatives regarding diversity and inclusion. She also hopes to see a change in the community division happening in Flagstaff, especially surrounding education during COVID-19.
“That’s not what Flagstaff is about. That’s not who we are as a community and I want to see that change,” Fredericks said. “I definitely want to see us being more respectful to one another and kind and helpful because that’s who we are. That’s who Flagstaff is.”
Gilmore, who was first elected to the board in 2016, grew up in Flagstaff and graduated from Flagstaff High School. She has decades of experience as a teacher and educational administrator and supervisor. Her goal in running for reelection is to continue to be open to ideas from community members on how to improve education, according to her candidate statement filed with the Coconino County Superintendent of Schools.
In an email to the Arizona Daily Sun, Gilmore called teachers and other staff who work directly with students the district’s greatest strength, and said they should be involved in the process of changing curriculum and other instructional policies in order to provide daily quality learning experiences for every student. She also expressed her goal to oversee the development of the new Killip School so that it equally benefits students and the surrounding community.
Current members of the FUSD board voted last week to approve a phased reopening plan to gradually return students to their school campuses after the area reaches the moderate community transmission level for COVID-19. The decision came after several meetings to discuss the topic and hundreds of public comments.
Fredericks admitted that these conversations have better defined FUSD’s equity issue: even with every student having an iPad to use for school, the district has been unable to meet the needs of all its students.
“We’re doing everything we can, but there’s just so much missing. Some of it we have control over, some of it we don’t,” Fredericks said.
Both she and Gilmore agreed that in-person learning is preferred over online learning, but that health and safety must also be considered during the pandemic. Gilmore added that for families where returning to in-person is not appropriate, the district needs an effective, sustainable remote learning option for the future.
Denetsosie Gishie said she agreed with this cautious, phased return to in-person classes because of its reliance on health data, which she said is essential if students and teachers, in particular, are to be protected.
“We all have to learn to dance together. We all have to understand that there will be give-and-take at all levels because we’re dealing with 9,700 children, so not everyone is going to be in agreement with whatever is decided upon by the school board,” Denetsosie Gishie said.
She also noted how important it is that students are given equal opportunities regardless of where they live or the school they attend, both during the pandemic and more normal times.
To increase input on future COVID-19-related decisions, Marks suggested expanding community relationships to include not only more health officials, but also additional input from NAU and Coconino Community College.
He said expanded, deliberate community relationships should be a priority outside of COVID-19, as well, beyond the relationships the district already has.
“There’s a lot of things that the school district is doing well, but we shouldn’t stop at good enough -- we need to go further. We need to improve, therefore we improve the quality of education,” Marks said.
Funding and Proposition 208
All four school board candidates are in support of Proposition 208, the Invest in Education Act, which would add a 3.5% tax surcharge for individuals making $250,000 or $500,000 for married couples. The funds would be used for efforts including to hire and increase base pay for teachers and classroom support personnel as well as to support career and technical classes.
Candidates called the proposition a good first step toward increasing funding for Arizona schools.
“That just creates the partnership to have a good system in place for the success of our students and also to retain good teachers within our district,” Denetsosie Gishie said.
Marks called the proposition “common sense” for teacher support, while Fredericks said she hoped the community-created proposition will show the legislature how much Arizonans care about funding for education.
Gilmore said, though, that it is also necessary to diversify funding sources for schools beyond state funding, such as by encouraging local businesses to donate their charitable contributions to FUSD rather than to national projects.
Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at email@example.com or by phone at (928) 556-2253.