The Amphi School District Finally Approves A Call-To-The-Audience Segment--But More Problems Lie On The Horizon.
By Jim Nintzel
MORE THAN 100 spectators jammed the meeting room last Tuesday, April 13, when the Amphi School Board finally approved restoring a call-to-the-audience segment at its meetings.
The Board majority had steadfastly refused to allow such a call-to-the-audience, despite pleas from parents and freshman Board member Nancy Young Wright. The Board's recalcitrance helped ignite a firestorm among voters which eventually consumed former Board President Mike Bernal, who was unseated by Ken Smith last November. Still, Amphi Board members Richard Scott, Gary Woodard and Virginia Houston refused to reinstate the call. Instead, they desperately tried to justify their stance by commissioning a legal opinion from longtime Amphi outside counsel Barry Corey.
Corey, a close friend of Amphi Superintendent Bob Smith, is frequently called when the district needs an opinion to support its position. When Wright first began rocking Amphi's boat after her election in 1996, for example, Corey was paid $4,000 to draft a letter reiterating school board policies in an effort to curb Wright's troubling questions.
In his novel call-to-the-audience opinion (which cost district taxpayers $6,687), Corey concluded that, because Board members might "consider" the issues parents and taxpayers would address during an open call, the elected officials would be violating Arizona's open meeting law because those issues would not have been posted on the meeting agenda.
Attorney General Janet Napolitano quickly shot that argument down, assuring Amphi that it was indeed legal to allow their constituents to directly address them.
With their last card played, the Board majority finally caved in, approving the call on Tuesday, April 13.
ALTHOUGH THEY applauded loudly when the call finally passed, most members of the thick crowd weren't there to see the vote. More than 50 of the meeting's attendees were there to address a bubbling crisis regarding the hunt for a new principal at Canyon Del Oro High School.
Earlier this month, the district's interviewing process came under criticism from parents and teachers who participated in a panel that interviewed potential candidates.
Leslie Crist, one of nine committee members who signed a letter to the Amphi Board, says she was outraged by the process, which struck her as a farce. Each applicant appeared before the committee to answer 10 questions which were prepared in advance by Amphi staff. Committee members--including teachers, parents, students and administrators--weren't allowed to ask follow-up questions or their own queries. Nor were they allowed to see résumés from the candidates.
"We were not given the opportunity to give a realistic picture of who we thought would be the best person for the job because we couldn't meet them," says Crist. "We didn't get a chance to know them."
Amphi officials initially told reporters they'd never had complaints with this process, which has been used at other schools, but a written trail indicates otherwise. Two years ago, Amphi parent Vicki Hart wrote Smith a letter complaining the "process is deeply flawed."
Hart, an occasional contributor to The Weekly who is active in community politics, said she was disturbed by the limited range of the interview and the secrecy of the process.
Although he wrote Hart a letter thanking her for her concerns, Smith didn't address the problems--and they exploded in his face when the CDO controversy ignited.
Julien, who is currently an assistant principal at Amphi High School, has both fierce supporters and detractors, but her candidacy was hurt by a rumor that she had promised to hire Chad Wilson as CDO's athletic director.
Chad Wilson, the son of former Amphi Superintendent Rick Wilson, was first hired as a teacher by the district in 1995, while his father was still superintendent, despite the fact that he had no teaching certificate and hadn't managed to maintain the minimum 3.0 grade-point average required in his major. District officials told an Arizona Daily Star reporter the younger Wilson was accepted over 25 other applicants with better records because he received "rave reviews" for his teaching skills from his principal--who happened to be Bob "Bubba" Smith, who succeeded Wilson as district superintendent in 1996.
But the younger Wilson didn't stay in the classroom long. Earlier this year, Wilson started moving into administration, landing a spot as assistant to the principal at Amphi Middle School. More recently, he applied for an administrative post at CDO.
With the heat building early last week, however, Wilson withdrew his application for the CDO job--partially, he said, due to "defamatory" press reports. By Friday, Julien dropped out of the search as well. The Amphi administration is now ready to start the search again--and this time Smith is promising to revamp the parental/teacher panel.
Like the call-to-the-audience controversy, the CDO mess highlights Amphi's trouble listening to district parents and taxpayers. Rather than seeking input, the Board and administration too often put on an unconvincing show of concern.
Last fall, for example, during the call-to-the-audience controversy, Bernal and Woodard came up with an alternative to having an open call: town meetings where open discussions could take place.
Amazingly, they scheduled the first town meeting for just weeks before the election. (As it turned out, other than Amphi employees, only about 10 people bothered to attend.)
Amphi's next town meeting was scheduled for Tuesday, April 20. It was cancelled last week, shortly after the CDO controversy exploded in the dailies.
With Julien's decision to withdraw, the CDO controversy has been largely defused while a new search begins. But plenty of other troubles are on the horizon for Amphi.
The administration will likely face another fight soon over the implementation of a modified calendar district-wide. Currently, a few of Amphi's schools work under the modified calendar, which features a three-week break in the fall and spring and a shortened summer vacation. Critics of the modified calendar say the district has no evidence that the calendar leads to academic improvement, while increasing expenses like utility costs for keeping schools cool during Tucson's blistering summers.
And the district is still enmeshed in a costly court battle to build a third high school in endangered pygmy owl habitat. As of press time, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals had yet to rule on whether the district could build the school, which in now nearly two years behind schedule. As a result, class size is swelling at CDO.
As the high-school stall continues, growth pressures are building elsewhere in the district. The newly opened Wilson Middle School may soon be forced to add portable classrooms on its campus.
As the northwest building boom continues, the district will soon need new middle and grade schools--a problem that will be complicated as the state begins a new--and experimental--process doling out dollars for school construction.
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