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As 36,000 kids return to Peoria schools, will the new year be defined by learning or culture wars?

Frank Eager is a product and a steward of the Peoria Unified School District.

He graduated from Cactus High in the early 1990s, went back to coach basketball, and then was hired as an art teacher.

“As somebody who was getting ready to get married, I was very happy to go tell my wife I have a job,” he said.

Eager later moved to Sunrise Mountain High and has built the ceramics program over two-plus decades.

When I met him two weeks ago, he was portioning clay for students, technically for no pay.

“My contract doesn’t start up officially until next Wednesday,” he said.

Eager spoke while using a wire to cut blocks of clay and weigh them on a scale. He needed 100 10-pound bags to just start the school year, which Eager said is his last teaching in Peoria.

“I feel like we’ve become a political chess piece in a great big political game, and we’re a pawn to be moved around,” he said.

The players are members of the Peoria school board, and Eager knows the situation is not unique to his district.

He expects doing this interview will make him a target for retribution.  

“We're not respected. It's gotten worse over the years I've been in education,” he said

Eager said some parents submit public records requests — legal under state law — for teacher communications. Then the results get scoured for negative comments that become social media fodder.

“Now it’s like I’m scared to death to say anything outside of like, ‘This is clay. This is the stages of clay. Look at the pretty thing you made,” he said. 

Eager identified school board member Heather Rooks as a participant in the public shaming.

“We lost the superintendent. I think he got browbeaten by the board. He just retired,” said Eager.

Wednesday is the first day of the new school year in the Peoria Unified School District. Roughly 36,000 students make Peoria one of Arizona’s largest K-12 districts. But much of the attention drawn last school year was for culture wars at school board meetings.

Teacher files notice of claim against the school board

For two months, Rooks has declined interview requests from KJZZ News, including for this story.

A transgender person who teaches special education has filed a notice of claim, the first step toward a lawsuit, against Rooks and the Peoria school board alleging civil rights violations.

Rooks and another member tried to pull River Chunnui from a long list of rehires at a  March 9 meeting.

“We are supposed to be presenting our district as the best, and what I just heard is not the best,” said Rooks during the meeting.

Rooks made the comment after parents told the board not to renew two teachers and an athletic director.

One was angry with Chunnui over email about pronoun use and promoting transgender visibility.

Rooks later confronted the superintendent, after the board was told by district staff that a separate process is legally required when teachers face discipline, and being rehired can’t stop it from happening.

“Dr. Reynolds, since you’re the leader of all of these employees, are you OK with the three spoken tonight being allowed to be in this district?” 

Jason Reynolds, who retired in June, replied to Rooks that he didn’t want to talk about individual personnel issues.

“Every employee on this list is deemed rehirable as of today,” he said on March 9.

Rooks eventually joined a failed vote to oust Chunnui and another teacher, despite the board being told to first get legal advice.

Chunnui’s notice of claim, filed in mid July, says their email in question was more than a year old. Peoria investigated it in 2022, Chunnui went back to work, but has allegedly been harassed since.

A Peoria learner’s success story

The drumline for Cactus High School enthusiastically welcomed students and staff back to campus for a celebration of the new school year.

One of many speakers was 2020 Cactus alum Van Nguyen, who is about to start senior year at Penn State University as a biomedical engineering major.  

“None of this would have been possible without the guidance of the faculty members that I have met along the way,” Nguyen said.

The success story of a former student on the cusp of a cutting edge degree from a Big Ten school is the kind Peoria wants to get more attention.

Nguyen traced love for learning from elementary through high school and beyond. Then Nguyen reminded teachers that their lessons have ingredients to spark innovative thinking.

“Why am I here? I’m here because I’ve met some great faculty members along the way who changed the trajectory of my life and have helped me grow as a person,” said Nguyen

Another speaker was Peoria’s acting superintendent, who is also working as chief technology and operations officer.

The school board recently met about the search for a permanent superintendent. If all goes well, it could be done by the end of 2023.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been updated to reflect that the acting superintendent of Peoria Unified School District is not also teaching building trades in 2023-24. The acting superintendent said in a video played at a back-to-school celebration that he will teach building trades. PUSD staff say he was making a joke. 

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Matthew Casey has won Edward R. Murrow awards for hard news and sports reporting since he joined KJZZ as a senior field correspondent in 2015.