A Well-Credentialed Challenger Hopes To Help Fix The Moronic Amphi School Board.
By Jim Nintzel
ONCE UPON A time, the Amphi School District had a low but generally positive profile. In recent years, however, the sprawling district, located on Tucson's rapidly growing northwestern corridor, has found itself at the center of controversy. The homebuilding explosion has meant increasingly crowded classrooms filled with students whose school supplies are stretched thin. Modular buildings thickly dot some campuses to handle the overflow and some schools have been forced to experiment with alternative scheduling to manage the increasing number of pupils.
As if all of that wasn't enough, there's been the battle to build a new high school on the edge of critical habitat for the endangered pygmy owl, which has cost Amphi taxpayers more than a million dollars in legal and other related costs. There are the district's secretive land deals. There's an ongoing battle by parents who want to reclaim their right to address the Board of Governors at public meetings. And now there are questions about the qualifications of Amphi Superintendent Bob Smith, who has seen his salary steadily climb in the two-and-a-half years he has headed the district.
These issues have driven Kenneth Smith, a professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, to challenge incumbent Amphi Board members Gary Woodard and Mike Bernal in the race for two seats on the November ballot. With more than 40 years of experience teaching reading and English from grade school to the university level, Smith is no stranger to education. His wife, Barbara, taught reading for 17 years, including stints at Amphi's Nash Elementary and Cross Middle School.
"I held back for a long time, but I saw the things that were happening in the school district and decided it had to be done," says Smith. "They seem to have their heels dug in on matters that are costing the district an enormous amount of money."
Take the pygmy owl troubles. When the Board first learned that a pygmy owl had been sighted on the proposed high-school property in early 1997, the majority--with the exception of Nancy Young Wright, who had just been elected to the Board in the fall of 1996--downplayed the crisis. Despite Wright's request to be included in the discussion of the issue, Bernal and Woodard shut her out of the process, taking the lead and pushing plans for construction, which were ultimately halted by a federal lawsuit filed by the Defenders of Wildlife and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity. Although Amphi won the suit last spring, the environmental groups were able to get an injunction which now prevents the district from breaking ground on the property until an appeal is considered by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Lawyers from both sides were scheduled to argue the case in San Francisco this week and a ruling is expected by the end of November.
In the meantime, the district has been unable to break ground on a third high school--critically needed to relieve overcrowding at CDO High, a school originally designed for 1,700 students which is now serving about 2,700. According to an analysis in another newspaper, the cost to the district to fight to build the school on the property have climbed to close to $2 million. Smith finds that an unacceptable price tag, and argues that the money would have been put to better use finding a different location that wouldn't have been a legal quagmire.
"They keep throwing away district money they can ill-afford, and time is passing by and they're not looking at anything else and CDO continues to explode," he says. "They ought to give up and find a reasonable site."
Smith further criticizes the Board--which then included Bernal--for purchasing the land in 1994 without having environmental surveys or appraisals done. The parcels were purchased from families of local real-estate sharpies in deals arranged by well-known land broker Bill Arnold, who was allowed to negotiate his own fees with the sellers of the property even as he was spending Amphi tax dollars. A Tucson Weekly investigation in 1996 showed that nearby parcels of raw land sold for thousands of dollars less per acre.
BUT SMITH SAYS the land deals are just a symptom of a school board that "needs to change."
He points to the ongoing controversy revolving around something as basic as a call-to-the-audience segment at the public meetings. The district used to allow for the "hearing of visitors," but began skipping that portion of the meeting several years ago. Some Amphi parents have been fighting to restore a call-to-the-audience segment to the Amphi Board meetings for more than a year.
"Over the years, we have definitely lost our input," says Diana Boros, who has three kids attending school in the district. "We wanted to restore call to the audience, so the people we voted for understood that we're concerned about our children's education."
Boros and other parents organized as a group called Students First to bring attention to policy problems ranging from overcrowded classrooms to a lack of supplies for schoolchildren. They collected hundreds of signatures from parents on 38 pages of petitions asking to reinstate call-to-the-audience and began lobbying Board members. Wright supported the plan; Woodard and board members Virginia Houston and Richard Scott opposed the proposal.
Bernal's position has been more difficult to ascertain. Although he met several times with Boros and promised to support call-to-the-audience, for months he refused to put the item on the agenda. (As Board president, Bernal is the only Board member who can place an item on the agenda for discussion--which has further marginalized Wright's efforts to open the Board's modus operandi.) Boros finally became so frustrated by Bernal's procrastination she sent the signatures to the Board last April so she and her supporters would be able to address the issue as correspondence to the Board.
Bernal assured Boros she would have a chance to discuss the matter before the Board at the May 12 meeting. Boros then mailed, at her own expense, letters to everyone who had signed the petition to inform them that they could speak on the matter. But one day before the meeting, Boros got a letter from Bernal informing her he was postponing the discussion for several weeks.
Smith says these are the sorts of maneuvers that have inspired him to challenge Bernal on the November ballot. He supports the campaign for call to the audience.
"Virtually everybody else does it," he says. "It serves a purpose. When there's pressure building through frustration and there is no place to go and nothing that one can do, then that explodes."
But all the effort appears to have been for naught. At a meeting two weeks ago, the Board voted 4-1--with Wright again dissenting--to "streamline" the district's policies. As part of that streamlining, call-to-the-audience no longer exists. Amphi administrators said they could find no policy that ever established the segment in the first place, so they didn't really eliminate it.
Bernal and Woodard are now traveling to different schools' PTO meetings as part of an "outreach tour" designed to help parents better understand issues in the district. Smith complains that gives the incumbents a captive audience for their re-election campaign.
The incumbents have also raised more money than Smith. His most recent campaign finance reports, which cover activity through August 9, show he'd raised only $445. In comparison, Woodard had raised $860 and Bernal had raised $1,035. All but three contributions on both incumbents' lists came from Amphi administrators, whose salaries and promotions are approved by the Board.
THOSE ADMINISTRATIVE salaries are another sore point--particularly for Amphi Superintendent Bob "Bubba" Smith (no relation to Ken Smith).
Bob Smith was named interim superintendent in March 1996 when longtime Amphi Superintendent Rick Wilson stepped down. Rather than doing a national search, the Board decided to promote from within. Bob Smith, the only candidate to apply for the job, began at a base salary of $87,000, along with an $8,200 expense account, a $6,400 car allowance, and six weeks of paid vacation, four weeks of which can be converted to a cash payout of $389 a day.
Since then, the Board has been generous to Bob Smith. In July 1997, he received a $4,000 merit bonus, a 2.5 percent raise, and a contract extension through the year 2000. Five months later, in December 1997, the Board--in a vote taken close to midnight, after a lengthy executive session--gave Bob Smith another $5,000 annual raise and extended his contract through 2002.
Two weeks ago, the Tucson Civil Rights Coalition complained in a media release that Bob Smith had cut corners in his pursuit of an administrative certificate. In a December 1981 letter to the Arizona Department of Education, CDO principal Bill Kemmeries wrote that both "myself and Superintendent of Amphitheater District, Dr. Richard Wilson, are very anxious for Mr. Robert Smith to receive his provisional Administrative Certificate."
Kemmeries' letter details Smith's two years of teaching physical education and asks that a combination of other teaching experience--including scattered instruction of classes like "personal growth and development," interscholastic phys ed, and summer-session weight training--should be considered a full year of teaching experience.
Evidently, Kemmeries' letter did the trick, as the Department of Education removed Smith's classroom experience deficiency later that month.
"We really weren't surprised when we discovered he was the only candidate and he did not qualify for the minimum requirements," says Delores Grayam, director of the Civil Rights Coalition. Grayam says the teaching requirement is important "because that's what the institution is all about--teaching. Obviously he was on a fast track from the beginning for an administrative position. He did not want to be a teacher. I think it's really important for an administrator to be able to identify with that experience."
In a press release, Amphi called the Coalition's charges "ludicrous." The release defended Smith's experience as an educator, saying the accusation "represents a defamatory and politically motivated attack intended to impugn the integrity of Amphitheater's Superintendent and to discredit members of the Governing Board. Anyone reading the TCRC press release must surely quesion the political motivation of its authors and the timing of its release, just five weeks prior to the general election."
Amphi's release says the Civil Rights Coalition's accusations amount to "an unsubstantiated attempt to foment distrust against the Superintendent and the Governing Board," and concludes with a legal threat: "Dr. Smith and other top administrators of the district have been advised that they have legal rights against the authors of the press release and any person or entity which publishes false information contained in it."
Candidate Ken Smith, hoping to unseat one of the two ringleaders of the Amphi Board, believes the latest round of accusations against Smith are simply endemic to the district these days. He believes Amphi taxpayers have plenty of reason to distrust Bernal and Woodard, who have blundered repeatedly through their terms of office.
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