Boot Suit?

Ken Smith Faces A Legal Fight To Retain His Seat On The Amphi School Board.

THE INTRIGUE NEVER ends in the Amphi School District.

In the latest twist, County Schools Superintendent Anita Lohr has demanded the resignation of Amphi Board member Ken Smith, saying his wife's participation in Amphi's early retirement program disqualifies him from holding a seat on the five-member board.

"It's clearly a retaliation for the fact that Nancy and I have had considerable success in opening up this closed secretive operation," says Smith, who vows to fight any attempt to boot him from his seat.

Smith was elected to the Amphi Board in 1998. Campaigning as a reform-minded candidate critical of the Amphi administration and Board majority, he easily beat sitting Board President Mike Bernal and outpolled current Board Clerk Gary Woodard on election day.

Following his election, Smith teamed with Board member Nancy Young Wright to push for several changes in Amphi policy, including allowing parents and taxpayers to address the Board in an open call-to-the-audience segment at meetings. After a lengthy, high-profile struggle, the Board relented earlier this year and reinstated call-to-the-audience.

More recently, Smith and Wright complained about the use of funds in the Amphi Extension Program. A non-profit day-care/after-school program associated with the district, AEP had a $2.2 million budget that included a $7,000-plus expense fund controlled by Amphi Superintendent Bob "Bubba" Smith that was paying for food, drink, parties and retreats.

Smith and Wright have also been openly critical of the district's expensive court fight to build a new high school on the edge of endangered pygmy owl habitat. Construction of the school is more than two years behind schedule as a federal appeals court considers whether to allow construction. Smith and Wright also disagreed with the Board majority's decision to purchase a potential alternative high school site in Catalina instead of Oro Valley.

The ongoing battles, along with other issues in the district, have triggered a recall drive against the Board majority of Gary Woodard, Richard Scott and Virginia Houston.

At the center of the latest controversy is the status of Smith's wife, Barbara Smith, who entered an early retirement program with the district in May 1996. Under the system, Barbara Smith gave up her full-time teaching position, began receiving retirement benefits and agreed to work for 20 days a year in the district for 10 years.

"As all early retirees do, she receives benefits," says Smith. "They're trying to claim that makes her an employee of the district. Obviously, she is not. There are three categories of employees; we just got done voting raises for them: classified, certified and administrative. And of course Barbara was not included in any of those."

Lohr, who is stepping down from her post effective December 31, left town after faxing her letter to Smith and was unavailable for comment. But D. Scott Little, chief deputy to Lohr, insists Barbara Smith is an employee of the district. "She took an early retirement program with Amphi," Little says. "Basically what happens is she gives up her right to return as a continuing teacher in a full-time capacity, starts pulling state retirement down, and works part-time for the district. So she's a part-time employee of the district. She has a paycheck, she gets taxes withheld, she gets the same benefits as an employee, she gets a W-2 at the end of the year. From the basis of the interpretation of the county attorney's office, she's an employee."

Little says the matter will now be turned over to the County Attorney's Office, which will determine whether to pursue legal action to boot Smith from the Board.

"They're using the term 'retired employee,' which obviously is a contradiction in terms," Smith says. "Either she's retired or she's an employee. Clearly what she is, is retired. She has no position, she has no supervisor, when they list all of the employees of the district with salaries and so forth, they do not include retirees. So they have created a new category of employee just for this purpose. This all comes from the administration. It comes from the superintendent and Todd Jaeger, who reported it to the county superintendent."

Jaeger's actions particularly gall Smith, who argues that Jaeger, as the district's attorney, has a responsibility to represent him.

"Jaeger is attorney for the district," Smith gripes. "That means Jaeger supposedly represents me as an officer of the district. Yet Jaeger was doing this so-called investigation and reporting to the county attorney and to the county superintendent, and I didn't even know about it until I got the fax from the county superintendent. As somebody who's supposed to represent me, supposed to be my attorney, he didn't even have the courtesy to tell me he was doing that investigation and making reports to the county attorney and the county superintendent."

Ramona Johnston, who has spearheaded the recall campaign against Woodard, Scott and Houston, is appalled by the latest turn of events.

"It's pathetic," says Johnston, who adds that the recall effort has collected more than 5,000 signatures. To force a recall election, Johnston's group must turn in 5,042 valid signatures by December 20. She says the group will continue collecting signatures to provide a cushion for potential problems with invalid signatures.