Meet Our Candidates: Betts Putnam-Hidalgo for Tucson Unified School Board

The Arizona general election will be held on November 8, 2016. Reproductive health care access has been under attack, both nationally and statewide, but Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona has endorsed candidates who have shown strong commitment to reproductive justice. To acquaint you with our endorsed candidates, we are running a series called “Meet Our Candidates.” In order to vote in the election, you must register to vote by October 10 — and can even register online. Make your voice heard in 2016!

betts-putnam-hidalgo-scaled[B]etts Putnam-Hidalgo, a lifelong social activist and a fixture at Tucson Unified School District Governing Board meetings, is running for the board for the third time. The at-large position is nonpartisan.

The retired landscaper studied at the University of Arizona and at New Mexico University. Her family, which includes several enormous dogs, lives in a historic downtown Tucson neighborhood.

In its 2014 endorsement of her, the Arizona Daily Star said that the system badly needed new leadership, and that Putnam-Hidalgo “best” understood “the complex issues facing TUSD. The board must make tough decisions to focus a district that has lost about 13,000 students in the last 12 years.” The paper noted that despite her loss two years earlier, Putnam-Hidalgo

still kept up her regular attendance at board meetings. She’s also been actively involved in school site councils, served as a community representative and taught English as a second language to parents.

She speaks with enthusiasm of participating in parent leadership training through Voices for Education as a starting point for her advocacy. Her positions include supporting an internal auditor, reducing kindergarten through third-grade class sizes to 18 and making schools a neighborhood hub for social services as well as education.

A board adversary on one issue may be an ally on the next, she says, indicating she will not vote with a bloc on the board [and] … she’d ensure the authority line clearly reflects that “the superintendent works for the board.”

These same points are in her platform today. In addition to increased honesty and transparency in the district, she is calling for an end to abusively high administrative costs and low classroom funding. She will not support enormous compensation packages for the superintendent or other administrators while TUSD teachers and staff are among the lowest paid across surrounding districts. She notes that with the current pay structure, “the further one is from the students, the more compensation one receives. This is backwards and dangerous.”

“When it comes to avoiding teen pregnancy and having healthy relationships, ignorance is dangerous.”

The native New Yorker came to Arizona in the 1970s and came to her interest in TUSD through her son, now 16. She was 45 when he was born, already stepmother to two boys.

“When we lived in New Mexico, before my own son was born, the military recruiters started to call for my stepsons. I could not get them to stop. That was when I knew there was activism to be done in the schools,” Putnam-Hidalgo told us in an August 26, 2016, phone interview, during which she answered the following questions.

TUSD recently voted to include comprehensive sexuality education in its classrooms. What would you like this new curriculum to look like?

I’m really excited about it being a whole lot more than just name-the-body-parts. From what I understood from a number of high school students, they want [information about] how emotions and sexual contact intersect … I had that at a private school in the eighth grade: how sexual activity was nothing to be ashamed of and should be fun. We made fun of the teacher at the time but I now realize she was a revolutionary!

I have really high hopes for the curriculum because I have a teenager. I feel strongly about students receiving this information in school because by the time they get to high school, they may not be listening to their parents anymore. It’s powerful to know about your body and your choices. You grow up responsibly, knowing that ignorance in these matters has serious consequences. There is an alarming rate of teen pregnancy in this state, and Planned Parenthood has long tried to lower that rate through education and prevention.

In the most recent legislative session, the state Senate refused to hear SB 1020, which would have made sex education opt-out rather than opt-in. Can you explain why this seemingly small change would have made such a big difference?

Everybody needs this education. Although I disagree, I do understand that some parents don’t want their children to get this information from school, and they should be able to opt out. But the norm should be that the students do get comprehensive sex education. As it is currently, parents have to make a special effort for the students to receive this education: You have to opt in. But for whatever reason, a number of families are not engaged in their kids’ education, so the fact that it takes an additional amount of effort and engagement is backward. When it comes to avoiding teen pregnancy and having healthy relationships, ignorance is dangerous.

According to current Arizona law (ARS 15-176), no school district that includes HIV/AIDS education in their curricula may use instruction that “promotes a homosexual life-style,” “portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style,” or “suggests that some methods of sex are safe methods of homosexual sex.” Why do you think it’s so important for sex education in Arizona to be inclusive of all students?

The idea behind sex ed is knowledge, not promoting a lifestyle. I think this law is misguided and closed-minded as it implies that education is dangerous. That’s particularly Machiavellian to me … As one parent said in a TUSD Board meeting by way of supporting comprehensive sexual education — I’m paraphrasing: “TUSD is supposed to be involved in education. Instead, you are allowing religious indoctrination.” We’re supposed to be educating our kids — all of our kids — about the real world. Bring it up and talk about it. That’s how education works.

What do you think about the connection between teenage pregnancy and high-school dropout rates?

It’s obvious, avoidable, and a nightmare. I can’t believe it’s so difficult for our lawmakers to make that connection. I can’t believe that comprehensive sex education gets introduced district by district instead of statewide. It’s an “ignorance is best” stance and it’s dangerous.

I actually wanted to see this program added much faster to TUSD … It seemed like it took forever to be taken up. Initially, as I understand it, the district would have been able to use a grant to help in its implementation, but for some reason the decision got held up until just after that opportunity ran out. The district with which we were to share the grant was not unhappy about that: It just meant that they would have more money for it. But I felt differently. Had the vote been taken when the idea first arose, instead of being treated as too controversial an issue to be taken up in an election year, it would have passed with flying colors — as it ultimately did. Even the most conservative member of the board wondered why it was taking so long, stating that he knew middle school students who were parents. It’s just incomprehensible to me that electoral or any other concerns would get in the way of offering this crucial information to our students.

Why was it important for you to be endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona?

I’ve supported Planned Parenthood forever. They’re under attack, so more than ever I want to wear that endorsement. The first clinic I went to was Planned Parenthood — obviously that was many, many moons ago! — and they have continued to be on the front lines of women’s rights.

To learn more about Betts Putnam-Hidalgo’s candidacy, check out her website or read her frequent posts about the school system on the Tucson Weekly’s website.

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