Meet a Gen Z school board member working on making Arizona’s schools better for everyone.
Just a few years after graduating from Apache Junction High School in 2017, Bobby Bauders ran for the district’s school board as a write-in candidate—and won.
“I’ve always been passionate about education,” Bauders said. “I’ve seen first-hand the positive impact that it can have on students—especially students who are in less than ideal circumstances. It really changes the trajectory for people’s [lives].”
The tension that exists right now in Arizona’s K-12 education oversight sector, however—between administrators, school boards, and so on—makes Bauders concerned that students aren’t getting the quality experience they deserve.
“Most importantly, [this tension is] impacting the students because if the teacher and staff don’t feel like they’re in a conducive environment, in a non-hostile environment, they’re never going to be able to do the job to the level that they want—and ultimately the students are taking the brunt of that,” he said.
In April, the Governing Board for the Apache Junction Unified School District entered into a “mutual severance agreement” with its former superintendent, Heather Wallace, after two years on the job, citing “differing visions.”
Bauders voted against removing Wallace, and at the time told ABC 15 there was a concerted effort by Board President Dena Kimble and the majority of the board to “bully and harass” Wallace. Around the same time, sources revealed that Kimble and board member Gail Ross had taken illegal campaign donations from the Pinal County Republican Committee.
Bauders became part of an effort to recall Kimble and the two other board members who voted to terminate Wallace’s contract. The recall effort fell short.
The new superintendent, Robert Pappalardo, is the district’s fourth in six years.
Across the country, school boards and teachers have been targets of Republican organizations calling themselves “parents’ rights advocates.”
“Parents’ rights advocates,” New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has argued, is a term designed to downplay the strategy behind education extremist groups.
“The reality of the ‘parents’ rights’ movement,” Bouie wrote in March, “is that it is meant to empower a conservative and reactionary minority of parents to dictate education and curriculums to the rest of the community. It is, in essence, an institutionalization of the heckler’s veto, in which a single parent—or any individual, really—can remove hundreds of books or shut down lessons on the basis of that one person’s political discomfort. ‘Parents’ rights,’ in other words, is when some parents have the right to dominate all the others.”
Here in Arizona, Bauders said teachers and staff are left to deal with the fallout of extremist agendas and school board power struggles.
“They do this because they want to help kids succeed,” he said, adding that teachers “put their heart and soul into this job but [are] constantly torn down by people who frankly aren’t even interested in understanding the process behind how public education works.”
“[Staff] feel like they’re in such a hostile environment.”
In March, the school board for Phoenix-area Washington Elementary School District was subjected to personal attacks, after attempting to cut ties with a private university that had anti-LGBTQ values. Following a lawsuit by the Christian-based university, the school district agreed to reinstate an agreement allowing their student teachers to work in the district again, plus pay for all attorney fees.
At a time when schools are already desperate for resources, paying attorney fees to the tune of $25,000 set Washington Elementary even further behind their goals. And if Republicans in Arizona had their way, parents would be able to exploit that vulnerability even more.
In April, Gov. Katie Hobbs, a Democrat, vetoed a bill introduced by Republican Sen. John Kavanagh from Scottsdale, which would have allowed parents to sue school districts without having to pay their legal fees if they lost.
“Across the county and here in Arizona, schools and teachers have been maligned by bad actors who spread baseless theories, seeking to create conflict with teachers, school boards, and administrators,” Hobbs wrote. This bill does not protect parents’ rights but merely encourages litigation –no matter how frivolous – without consequences,” she wrote. “Parents, acting in good-faith concern for their children, are often caught in the middle of these conflicts.”
Bauders said it’s time for the state to allow governing boards to dig into the jobs they were elected to do. He’d particularly like school boards to have a level of taxing authority, similar to the authority city and town councils have.
“I just think the state needs to start letting us do our job,” he said. “[Give us] more resources so that we can actually provide the services that we know are needed, because we’re the ones here in our community every day. We know what we need.”
He said one of his most proud accomplishments is getting more social workers hired at schools in the district, a position he said was sorely lacking when he graduated high school six years ago.
Despite the local issues, and problems with education funding in Arizona as a whole, Bauders said he loves being a board member.
“I feel like this district and this community really helped raise me,” he said. “I had a single mom who, oftentimes, worked more than 55 hours a week. She wasn’t always able to do the things that a lot of other parents were and the school system helped fill that void. I’m so glad that it’s there for families who do need help filling that void.”
“I know some of these families and some of the backgrounds that they’re coming from. And similar to me, you don’t really think there is anything more in your future than poverty, and to see these kids have their successes celebrated…is really special to me.”
Members of the Apache Junction Unified Governing Board are up for reelection in 2024. Learn more about the election here.
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