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  • The birth of public schools in Pima County

    The way we were
    By Tom Prezelski

    Folks frequently ask me about the origins of certain county offices. A previous column discussed the office of County Assessor, which had its beginnings in an obscure but necessary 19th century reform movement. The office of Superintendent of Schools is similarly rooted in territorial times, and is a critical part of the story of the evolution of the public school system in Arizona.

    Estevan OchoaDuring the earliest days of the Territory, most of Arizona’s towns were relatively new, and because of the boom-and-bust nature of the mining economy, somewhat ephemeral. The population was disproportionately male and transient. Pima County, centered as it was in the older and well-established town of Tucson, was an exception, with a stable population that included women and families. The result was that leaders within Pima County drove the development of public education in Arizona.

    The Territory authorized a system of public schools as part of a larger package of laws passed by the first legislature in 1864, but the language merely authorized its creation when a “necessity” arose. The legislature, making a finding that further action was “premature,” authorized a $250 subsidy for the mission school at San Xavier and did little else. However, the statute introduced the notion of school districts with the power to tax.

    The legislature revisited the issue in 1867. Recognizing that many communities in Arizona were simply not ready for schools, legislators decentralized authority over schools, placing the responsibility for establishing districts in the hands of the county boards of supervisors. Under the new law and in response to a citizen petition, the Pima County Board of Supervisors under the leadership of Chairman Oscar Buckalew established what was to become Arizona’s first school district on Nov. 18, 1867. What was called District No. 1 was defined as “all the Territory lying and being within one mile each way from the Plaza de la Mesilla [present day La Placita].” Oddly enough, as written, the new district, which eventually became the Tucson Unified School District, appears to have been circular in shape.

    The taxation power authorized by the law of 1867 proved to be inadequate and the statute was otherwise unworkable. The district established a school in Tucson, but it closed within a matter of months. Efforts to create a more sustainable school system would be led in the Territorial Legislature by Estevan Ochoa. A former Pima County Supervisor, Councilman Ochoa was one of the wealthiest men in Tucson and had taken an active interest in the success of the Tucson school, even helping to finance its construction. (The upper house of the Territorial Legislature was called the Council, and was roughly equivalent to the current Senate.)

    Under the laws he spearheaded in 1868 and 1871, the taxation power of districts was expanded. Each county board of supervisors would also sit as a board of Ochoa Community Schooleducation, charged with, among other things, certifying teachers and setting standards. Initially, the board was authorized, but not required, to appoint a superintendent of schools to serve as an executive, but this responsibility was soon placed with the county probate judge. For this, historians have dubbed Ochoa the “father of public schools in Arizona.”

    Subsequent school laws brought more order to the system, placing more administrative responsibilities in the hands of the probate judges in their roles as acting superintendents. There were more calls to spin off the superintendent as a separate elected office. However, even as late as the 1880s, this was not a priority in most counties. In 1885, as a part of a package of reforms of county government, the Legislature authorized a salary for county school superintendents, apparently in expectation that a school law passed that year would create the new office. However, that bill was amended at the last minute to remove the change, meaning that probate judges would collect two salaries. While this may well have started as an oversight, subsequent legislatures were leery of creating new offices and did not authorize an elected County School Superintendent until 1897.  

    In 1898, Pima County’s first election for superintendent pitted Democrat John T. Hughes against Republican E.B. Williams, an attorney from Nogales. Hughes was the son of Louis Hughes, founder of the Arizona Star who had, as a probate judge, served as the first acting superintendent in 1872. Williams won in what proved to be a good year for his party. Neither candidate had any particular qualifications for the office other than their partisanship. It was not until statehood that a teaching certification became a prerequisite for the position.

    Photos: Top, Estevan Ochoa was considered the 'father of public schools in Arizona.' Bottom: Ochoa Community School bears his name.
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