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New push to remove Confederate monuments in AZ includes Sierra Vista memorial

PHOENIX — New pressure is building on Gov. Doug Ducey to reverse his defense of having monuments to the Confederacy on state-owned property.

In a letter Wednesday, James McPherson III, president of the board of the director of the Arizona Preservation Foundation, reminded the governor of the calls in 2017 by many, including his organization, to remove the monuments following violence by white supremacists in Virginia.

“Unfortunately, nothing was done,” McPherson wrote.

Now, he told Ducey, it is time to finally deal with the issue “after yet another senseless killing of an African-American and the subsequent nationwide demonstrations seeking the elimination of systemic racism and bigotry.”

But the foundation is aiming its ire at more than just the monument to Confederate soldiers, erected in the 1960s, that sits across the street from the state Capitol. McPherson also is demanding removal from state property:

A memorial to Confederate soldiers who fought for “independence and the constitutional right of self-government” that was erected about a decade ago in the state-run Veteran Cemetery in Sierra Vista;

A plaque at Picacho Peak State Park, where the only Arizona battle of the Civil War was fought, dedicated to “Confederate frontiersmen who occupied Arizona Territory, Confederate State of America”’

A monument marking the “Jefferson Davis Highway” sitting adjacent to Route 60 east of Mesa, erected in 1943 by the Daughters of the Confederacy Arizona.

Ducey, when first asked about these in 2017, defended them as helping people “know our history.”

“I don’t think we should try to hide our history,” he said. “It’s not my desire or mission to tear down any monuments or memorials.”

But McPherson told Ducey on Wednesday that argument holds no water.

“The removal of these monuments will not ‘change’ history or ‘erase’ it,” he wrote. “What does change with such removals is what Arizona decides is worth of civic honor and recognition.”

Anyway, McPherson noted, it’s not like any of these were erected close to the time of the war.

It isn’t just the Arizona Preservation Foundation pressuring the governor on the issue.

A separate letter to Ducey Wednesday signed by 200 veterans issued a similar call, saying these monuments “dishonor and disrespect the service of those who swore and oath to ‘support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.’ “

“Make no mistake, the Confederate soldiers honors by these monuments were domestic enemies fighting for the cause of slavery, leading to the loss of nearly 620,000 lies during the Civil War,” the letter states.

The closest Ducey has come to acknowledging the controversy has come over the monument in Wesley Bolin Plaza across from the Capitol, the one that was erected by the United Daughters of the Confederacy at the beginning of the civil rights movement in 1961. Asked last month about new calls to remove that in the wake of protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, the only thing Ducey would say is that he did not want to make such a decision on his own.

“There is a public process to be able to put something into Wesley Bolin plaza or on state property,” the governor said. “I think there should be a public process if someone wants to go the alternative route.”

But it was Ducey who signed legislation in 2018 abolishing the Capitol Mall Commission which until then had the power to decide what went it — and what came out — of the plaza. That law now gives the power of removal exclusively to Andy Tobin, the governor’s hand-picked director of the Department of Administration.

And the other three monuments are under the purview of state agencies whose directors report to the governor.

On Wednesday, aides to Ducey refused to comment on McPherson’s letter or the whole issue of the monuments.

But it hasn’t just been the governor defending their presence.

Nicole Baker, spokeswoman for Wanda Wright, director of the Arizona Department of Veteran Service, said the monument in Sierra Vista is at the entrance to what she called a “cemetery within a cemetery.” These contain remains which originally were buried in the old military cemetery that served Fort Lowell in the late 1800s but were moved to Sierra Vista.

Baker said each of the tombstones is labeled “unknown” because of the lack of DNA to identify remains. But she said that this section covers all who served in any fashion from the 1860s through the 1880s.

The stone marker in question was erected by the Confederate Secret Service Camp 1710, Sons of Confederate Veterans.

“While we can’t erase our nation’s history, we can certainly learn from it and help future generations plot the way forward,” Baker said.

McPherson has a different take.

“These monuments celebrate and promote bigotry and racism,” he wrote to Ducey. “They are devoid of true Arizona history and their very presence continues to hurt our African-American friends, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers we may meet on the bus, at the lunch counter, or on a march for justice.”

The current controversy mirrors what happened three years ago when Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, led the drive to remove Confederate monuments off of state property.

“Any African-American and many other individuals should not be required to use our taxpayer dollars to keep up with the upkeep and maintenance of these memorials,” he said at the time. Bolding said that would be comparable to having monuments on public lands to those who fought for the Nazis.

While the monuments all remain, Bolding did win a victory of sorts at the time.

In fighting to have the marker for the Jefferson Davis Highway removed, Bolding also pushed to have any reference to it scrubbed from state maps.

But John Halikowski, director of the Arizona Department of Transportation, said there was no need for that because as far as his agency is concerned it no longer exists.

Halikowski acknowledged that the Arizona Highway Commission voted in 1961 to designate U.S. 80 through Arizona as the “Jefferson Davis National Highway.” Davis was the first and only president of the Confederate States of America, and Arizona was one of 15 states to adopt the highway name.

But he pointed out to the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names that U.S. 80 no longer exists, with the same stretch of road now bearing other route numbers. And he said once U.S. 80 disappeared, so did the designation.

At the same time, however, ADOT has allowed the monument to remain on state right of way, with an agency spokesman saying it is “not an immediate safety hazard,” meaning there are no safety reasons to remove it.

That rock and granite marker originally was located along U.S. 70 at Duncan, near the New Mexico border. It was moved to its current location in the 1960s with state approval.


Classroom
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Working for the kids: New SVUSD superintendent driven to serve students

SIERRA VISTA — With the start of the new month came a new leader for the Sierra Vista Unified School District. On July 1, Eric Holmes became the superintendent for the eight local schools, replacing Kelly Glass.

Holmes served the children and community of York, Pennsylvania for 32 years before he retired in the summer of 2019. He served as the superintendent for the School District of the City of York for the six years leading up to his retirement.

Holmes was hired in the spring and signed a three year contract with SVUSD. He relocated to the area in the middle of May and since June has been meeting community leaders and administrators from the district and schools. Admittedly, he hasn’t met everyone he’d like to yet, but is making his way through his growing list of people.

“This is my second day officially but I’ve been working for the last three weeks unofficially,” Holmes said in an interview with the Herald/Review on Thursday.

“I have met all the principals. I have visited all the schools. I’ve visited all the district property here in the city. Of course I’ve met with all the board members and like I said I’ve met about 15 additional community leaders. I’m going to continue to meet with community leaders until I have my list complete,” he said.

Holmes began his career in education as a history teacher because of his passion for the subject. While he loves being in the classroom, he believes he can help students more as a superintendent.

“I enjoyed being a teacher,” he said. “It was a lot of fun and I miss it all the time. … But I think I can do more for (kids) in this role than I can as a classroom teacher. “

Holmes took time Thursday morning to sit down with the Herald/Review to discuss his plans and vision for the district.

Herald/Review: What made you want to come to Arizona?

Eric Holmes: I was doing some teaching to grad students at York College in Pennsylvania. I did that for a semester and I realized that I wanted to continue working. And my wife and I had been discussing eventually retiring here in Arizona and getting a place here in Arizona so I started looking.

I had never heard of Sierra Vista. … Now being a history teacher, I heard about the Buffalo Soldiers and I remember when Colin Powell was here to do something with the anniversary, but I didn’t know that was Sierra Vista.

But it’s a beautiful community and I’m very happy to be here. Everyone who I’ve met has been very friendly and you go into the stores and you talk to people and there are so many alumni here that are working in the community or own businesses in the community who support what the schools are trying to do.

HR: What made you want to take on a superintendent position again?

EH: I missed it. I enjoyed being superintendent. There’s an energy about it. And I really missed being around students, because the energy that you get from being around kids I think is like no other energy around. I sort of missed making a difference. I really did. I missed being able to help kids. I missed making a difference in the lives of children.

HR: What similarities do you see between York and Sierra Vista?

EH: They consider Sierra Vista as rural, but it’s roughly the same population as York. Cochise County is much bigger than York County, but York City was the largest school district in the county, as Sierra Vista is. And with that there are similar challenges with that, as well as very positive attributes. Diversity being one of them.

HR: What are some of those similar challenges?

EH: You want to provide an educational opportunity for kids that is second to none. And in order to do that, there’s always issues when it comes to funding and resources. That’s happening more and more in any school district — that doesn’t make a difference where they are, but you take a look at what you can do with the resources that you have and how you can stretch those resources to do what’s best for kids.

But you certainly see that as a challenge when you want to be able to provide for your students, but sometimes you are not able to give them what you think they need because of the resources that are available.

HR: How would you describe your leadership style?

EH: I’m a servant leader. I believe in honesty above all else and transparency. I believe in collaboration and I believe in recognizing people for the good work that they do, and celebrating that good work.

I’ve never been afraid to make a tough decision. I’ve had to make many of them in my career. But as long as you explain to people why you are making those decisions, and the logic behind it, then people are more inclined to support those decisions, even if they don’t agree with them.

And I again, I’ve reached a point in my career where everything, every decision I make, will be in the best interest of children, because that’s why we’re here.

HR: What goals do you hope to accomplish in your time here?

EH: We’re gonna look at how we can empower our staff, we’re going to be examining best practices, teacher strategies and how we can incorporate those in what we do every day.

We’re going to be looking at how we can make Buena High School the best high school in the state of Arizona, because that is our goal and we’re not that far from it. And there is so much potential there that we’re all excited about making that happen.

By doing that, we make Sierra Vista a destination spot where people want to move, because that’s where they want their children to go to school. So that is my goal over the next however many years I’m here.

HR: What excites you about SVUSD?

EH: There’s good people here in this school district. There’s talented (and) passionate educators. Everyone that I’ve met so far wants to do right by the students. So I’m excited about it because I have a strong staff to work with. I haven’t met many of the teachers yet, mostly it’s been administrators, but I hear good things about our teachers and I’m excited about working with them.

I know that they are creative and I know that they are passionate because of what they have had to do this spring when we had to shut the district down and teach online.

My motto has always been, “the answer is in the room.” So whatever the question is, whatever the problems are, whatever the issues that need to be addressed, the answer is always in the room, and I truly believe that here.

HR: How do you plan to build trust with the community, parents and staff?

EH: I’ve always believed actions speak louder than words. I don’t expect people to trust me. They don’t know me right now. They don’t know what I stand for or my history. I am a guy coming in from out of town and that’s fine. So you build trust through your actions, and you build trust through keeping your word and you build trust through the types of decisions that you make, because if those decisions are always what’s best for kids, then that consistency will allow you to build trust.

HR: What were some key points of your entry plan?

EH: It’s been delayed because of COVID. And the focus right now is reopening. But the entry plan will still be carried out; it will just take a little longer. We’re talking about teacher focus groups, patent focus groups (and) community focus groups to identify some of the issues that exist not only in the school district but in the community and then to develop initiatives that could address some of those issues. Meeting with all the community leaders, and that includes parent groups and religious groups and everyone else. Not just business or politics, it’s everyone in the community. Developing a relationship with each of those stakeholders.

A lot of this job is relationship building, and you do that through interaction, and you do that with consistency in your decisions, and you do that with transparency in how you go about your work, and you do that by being available to people when they need to talk to you.

HR: Staffing shortages are a constant challenge for the district. Have you had to overcome staffing shortages in your career? What’s a plan to help with staffing?

EH: Yes I have and that’s because there is a teacher shortage not just in Arizona but nationwide. People aren’t going into the profession like they used to, and that’s sad to hear because it’s a wonderful profession. You get so much out of teaching and being a part of the lives of children that it’s certainly worth it. But we’re seeing nationwide is a shortage of teachers, particularly a shortage of teachers in specialized subjects like special education, science (and) math. Those are the positions we’re seeing fewer and fewer students majoring in college.

One of the things we are trying to do here is to grow our own. And I think that’s one of the best ways to increase the number of people going into the teaching profession. Which is to encourage students at the junior high, middle school and high school level to become teachers, and then come back to the community and teach here.

HR: Any update on the plan for reopening schools in the fall?

EH: My intentions are to discuss the district’s plan on Tuesday night at the board meeting. … We have been working diligently on a plan that gives parents options and keeps kids and employees safe.

We are currently wrapping up our conversations. We have had focus groups, we’ve surveyed parents, we’ve surveyed teachers and we’re going to have another parent and teacher survey within the next week or so after we introduce the plan. We have tried to do our due diligence to come up with something that is effective for the community and keeps our kids and staff safe.