A Valley native and product of the Arizona public school system, Republican Jonathan Gelbart is one of two Jewish candidates vying to become Arizona’s next Superintendent of Public Instruction.
This year’s race promises to be particularly exciting given the increased attention Arizona’s school system has received in the wake of a mass teacher walkout that ended earlier this month.
Gelbart said he thought the walkout might have negative repercussions.
“I support more funding to our schools,” Gelbart said. “But I thought the walkout was a bad idea because it could end up in a public backlash, which would make it harder to pass increased funding in the future.”
The other Jewish candidate campaigning to become Arizona’s next Superintendent of Public Instruction is Tempe City Councilmember David Schapira, a Democrat, who supported the walkout.
Most recently an educational administrator, Gelbart, who had his bar mitzvah and went to Hebrew school at Beth El Congregation in Phoenix, attended Phoenix’s Barry Goldwater High School and then Stanford University, where he got his undergraduate degree in international relations and a master’s degree in engineering. He returned to Arizona early in 2012.
“The reason I moved back in Arizona was because I wanted to get involved in helping the education system in one way or another,” Gelbart said. “I went around interviewing folks who were involved in education. I shadowed a principal for a day and applied for some teaching jobs.”
When the teaching jobs didn’t pan out, Gelbart went to work for Window Rock Capital Partners, and then moved on to become the director of charter school development for Basis Charter Schools in early 2014. He was in that position for three years before he resigned in order to focus on the campaign full-time.
“I was able to help them open 15 Basis campuses — some of them were new campuses for existing schools — and today those schools are serving about 10,000 kids,” Gelbart said. “I managed $250 million of projects for them. It was just a great opportunity to learn.”
One of the schools Gelbart opened, Basis Scottsdale, was ranked the best high school in the country by U.S. News & World Report in 2017. The top five schools in that report were, in fact, all Basis Arizona schools.
But Basis is not without its critics. While debating the potential expansion of Basis schools in Mesa and Flagstaff, some members of the Arizona State Board for Charter Schools expressed concerns over its financial solvency. Basis had a $32 million cumulative deficit as of June 30, 2017, and a $9.1 million deficit for 2017. “Thirty-two million dollars is the greatest debt of any charter school in the state,” said Jim Hall, founder of Arizonans for Charter School Accountability.
Gelbart disputed that characterization.
“The $32 million in losses are because of the way the financing is structured,” he said, noting that the seemingly troubling numbers resulted from the refinancing of some 30-year bonds. In fact, he said, “that arrangement has been able to result in significant savings for debt service, resulting in more dollars going to Arizona classrooms. ... All in all, it’s been a net positive for the children of Arizona.”
Not surprisingly, Gelbart is a strong supporter of school choice.
“I think we’re better off allowing parents to choose the school that’s best for their kids,” he said. “Some districts are competing very well. Look at the
Chandler School District. They were losing kids to Basis because those kids wanted advanced math programs and other things Basis was offering, so the district stepped up and started offering more advanced math programs at Hamilton High School. I think that’s great. That’s what we want. We want everyone to be upping their game.
“Districts have to compete to make sure that they’re offering a great product, and if they don’t do that, then families are going to go elsewhere. My goal is to get as many children as possible an excellent education, whether that’s in charter schools or district schools.”
Gelbart faces a crowded field in the Aug. 28 Republican primary, facing off against incumbent Diane Douglas; Tracy Livingston, a member of the Maricopa County Community College District Governing Board; Frank Riggs, a former U.S. House representative for California from 1991-1992 and 1995-1998, and a one-time Arizona gubernatorial candidate; and Robert Branch, who has worked in higher education and is the current commissioner of Parks and Recreation for Maricopa County.
On the Democratic side, Schapira is running against Kathy Hoffman, a speech therapist in the Peoria Unified School District. JN