Arizona Republic, The (Phoenix, AZ)
January 8, 2007

Author: Karina Bland, The Arizona Republic Estimated printed pages: 7

Come the first meeting of the new Phoenix Union High School District board on Thursday, Superintendent Raj Chopra will find himself in a precarious position.

By all accounts, Chopra has transformed the inner-city district over the past six years:

* Test scores and the graduation rate are up.

* Teachers are among the highest paid in the state.

* New schools are opening nearly every year, including specialty schools in bioscience and law enforcement.

But in doing all that, Chopra has crossed the district's powerful teachers union because of his often blunt management style.

He now faces a new board mostly made up of members endorsed by the Classroom Teachers Association.

There had even been talk of the new board firing Chopra, though members have backed off that idea.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne has made it clear that letting Chopra go before his contract expires in just over two years not only would be a waste of taxpayers money -- it would cost $500,000 to buy him out -- but an unwise move at a time when the district is doing so well.

This is familiar territory for Chopra.

The 69-year-old educator is a fixer, called into struggling school districts nationwide and asked to make things better. That means doing things differently than they had been.

In Phoenix, Chopra has offended teachers' professionalism, demanding that they provide lesson plans and stripping them of their say in decisions that could affect their classrooms.

He also sent the teachers group's president back to the classroom, pulling funding that allowed the person in the post to do union activities full time.

Phoenix Union is the city's largest high school district, with about 25,000 students. Members of its teachers group say they only want to be treated with respect, as partners in the education of their young charges.

The new board members have promised them that.

This conflict between Chopra, the board and the teachers union reaches beyond the district's boundaries.

City Councilman Greg Stanton said Phoenix Union is crucial for the ongoing redevelopment of downtown Phoenix.

"Ultimately, we will not be successful without a high-quality high school district."

Chopra is confident that he is doing what he was hired to do: raise student achievement and efficiently manage the district's financial and human resources.

"You may not like me as a person, but you cannot fight with the facts," he said, sliding a pile of graphs across a conference table.

"If I am to be punished for that, I am ready."

Transforming districts

Chopra left his superintendent post in Marple Newtown, Pa., in 2000, just two years into a five-year contract. He was considered a sharp administrator who did wonders in the classroom but clashed with board members.

In 1994, when Chopra was superintendent of the Fort Bend Independent School District in Sugar Land, Texas, a newly elected board reversed a decision to extend his contract and bought him out for $200,000.

Even with the clashes at Fort Bend, five years after Chopra left he was included in the Chamber of Commerce's list of the top 100 people who had made the greatest impact on the community.

In 1981, National Geographic called Chopra "a national treasure" for his work in Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Before he arrived 1978, the district was the subject of a 60 Minutes report for its low test scores. In three years, Chopra turned the district around, making the kinds of improvements that have occurred in Phoenix Union.

In 2001, when Chopra arrived, the graduation rate was 55 percent, and test scores on Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards, or AIMS test, were among the state's worst.

Now, new reading and math programs and intensive intervention by teachers have put Phoenix Union's AIMS scores near and, in some cases, above state averages. The graduation rate is 72 percent.

Belief in success

Speaking to eighth-graders last year at the Phoenix Convention Center, Chopra told them that he believed they would succeed in school, even though many were poor or primarily spoke Spanish.

Chopra grew up poor during a time of civil war in what became Pakistan. His father died when he was just 9, and he and his four siblings were raised mostly by their grandmother.

She allowed no self-pity when her grandchildren complained of their few clothes. She pointed out children with no shirts at all. His grandmother taught them to believe in God and have faith that they could do whatever they set out to accomplish. He said she told them, "What you face in life is destiny. How you face it is your choice."

Chopra immigrated to the United States from New Delhi, India, in 1969 to teach social studies in Toledo Public Schools and with dreams of becoming a superintendent. This is his seventh stop as superintendent.

"I can never pay back what I have received from this country," Chopra said.

The mandates and accountability measures of the federal No Child Left Behind Act means school districts are increasingly being run like businesses.
Chopra has saved millions with his fiscal management. The district's $270 million budget is in fine shape.

When Chopra arrived, he railed about the state of the schools' restrooms, demanding that they be repaired and cleaned. Later, he split the lunch hour into two because some students were unable to eat because of long lines. He expanded the schools' breakfast program and asked principals to clear their schools of all junk food and sodas.

He pushed for more advanced placement and honors classes and money for libraries, athletics, and arts programs.

"It is a matter of changing the culture of this district from an adult-centered district to a child-centered district," he said.

Dramatic change in board

The makeup of the school board changed dramatically with the November election. It destroyed a four-member voting bloc that routinely supported Chopra and his ideas.

To protest decisions made by Chopra and supported by the majority of the board, the teachers union challenged the validity of signatures of the nominating petitions of two longtime incumbents, Douglas Thomas and Harry Garewal, knocking both from the ballot.

Then, the teachers endorsed a slate of candidates that did not include Will Hill, a board member for 12 years, or incumbent Linda Abril. Those two, along with Thomas and Garewal, made up the voting bloc.

In April, the four voted to dismantle the Classroom Teachers Association's 37-year-old professional agreement with the district. The agreement defined pay and benefits, set class size and duties and ensured teacher input in decisions.

Chopra and the four board members contended that the decades-old professional agreement was out of step with government mandates for student achievement, and principals complained that they needed greater control over how their schools are run.

But Ed Bufford, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, said calling a halt to the annual contract negotiations and imposing a new handbook on teachers was unfair. Teachers were willing and already had made some concessions to changes.

Without the professional agreement, teachers have no guarantee that they will have a say in decisions that could affect their classrooms, such as how the school day is structured or what textbooks will be used.

"Teachers have valuable input, and there should be a guarantee that it be heard," he said.

Historically, the association has been a powerful group. Its membership includes more than 1,200 of the district's 1,500 teachers. Of the four board members who stood against the teachers group, only Abril remains on the board.

The election of three new members, all endorsed by the union, along with incumbents David Lujan and Steve Gallardo, both state lawmakers and union supporters, turns the favor to teachers.

"The key thing now that the election is over is that we can focus on the concept of collaboration and working together," said Bufford, who is new to the union presidency but has met with Chopra more than a half-dozen times.
"I'm looking forward to the future."

The future rests with Lujan, who likely will be chosen board president at Thursday's meeting. He has promised to reopen negotiations on the professional agreement, much to the delight of teachers.

He has met with the union and other employees to tell them that it is not the board's intention to fire Chopra.

"It's not a wise move at this point. We're going to work with him."

Chopra said he'd like to stay through the end of his contract. He has plenty to proud of, but he said he's not finished yet.

What people are saying

Superintendent Raj Chopra has transformed the Phoenix Union High School
District over the last six years, but not without offending some teachers
and board members with his blunt management style. Here's what people say:

"Things seemed pretty hopeless and then along came Dr. Chopra," says Johanna
Haver, who taught in Phoenix Union for 18 years. "What he's done nobody
thought could be done."

Gary Peter Klahr, a Phoenix attorney who was on the board when it hired
Chopra, says he has little criticism of what the superintendent has done for
student achievement. But he says Chopra's treatment of the teachers should
cost him his job. "This is not a failed district in any way, but the
arrogance of Raj has come to the point that he has to go. I'm not sorry I
voted for him, but I'm not ashamed to say, 'It's time for him to go.' "

Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction, says Chopra works in
the best interest of students. "That's why he does courageous things."

New board member Jarrett Maupin campaigned on the platform that he would
work to remove Chopra. Now he's calling for the board to review his
performance. "Perhaps Dr. Chopra will change. Perhaps we will see a newly
inspired superintendent who will work in the best interest of students and
with respect of the new board members and the teachers."

"I think the new board members are open to input from the community, the
taxpayers, students, parents and teachers," says Barbara Lubin, whose
daughter graduated last year from Central High. She hopes Chopra will do the
same. "I think you can still be a tough boss and have goals that need to be
met, you can still be demanding, but treat your employees with respect."

"We were plenty clear about what we wanted to accomplish and that was to
provide a high quality of education for students," says former board member
Harry Garewal, who voted to hire Chopra in 2001. "We've never held high
expectations for our kids at Phoenix Union. Dr. Chopra holds high
expectations for our kids."

"There's still a lot of room for improvement," says state Rep. David Lujan,
who also sits on the Phoenix Union board. "We can't really celebrate yet."

CAPTION: Raj Chopra CAPTION: Graduation rates; Performance labels
Edition: Final Chaser
Section: Front
Page: A1