Coup De Todd

Amphi's Administration Teams Up With The County Attorney In An Attempt To Bump Off A Hell-Raising Board Member.

WHEN KEN SMITH ventured home to Arkansas last month to help his mother celebrate her 89th birthday, little did he know that his lawyer would be trying to sack him from the Amphitheater Public Schools Governing Board.

With Smith gone, Todd Jaeger -- an associate superintendent and Amphi's chief legal counsel -- scurried to Anita Lohr, the soon-to-exit Pima County Schools Superintendent, with the dirt.

Jaeger revealed to Lohr that Smith should be bounced from the Board seat he won last year because -- Jaeger just discovered -- his wife Barbara taught Amphi students as part of her early retirement agreement.

"I thought he represented me," Smith said. "I thought I was his client. And yet he waited until I was out of town and hurriedly did this as if he just found out. He and everyone else in Amphi knew Barbara taught part time as part of the early retirement program."

State law does not allow a school board member to be married to an employee of that school system.

The assertion that Smith's situation just came to light is absurd to most in Amphi, which at a fraction of the size of the Tucson Unified School District, is small enough that most employees and officials know one another. And the politically nosy didn't hesitate to spread it all around.

"Everybody knew," Smith said. "During the campaign, I introduced Barbara and said she taught as a member of the early retirement program."

Smith, following the pioneering election in 1996 of Nancy Young Wright, is the second reformer on a most recalcitrant Board. His upset victory toppled Amphi strongman Mike Bernal. Together, Young Wright and Smith threaten, with erosion that may seem slight, the long-established power base now-outgoing Superintendent Robert "Bubba" Smith has enjoyed with his Board majority.

Despite their regular 3-2 losses, Smith and Young Wright have achieved a great deal. They have forced the district to open up meetings to allow a general call to the audience, an utterly foreign concept to Bernal and the remnants of his regime -- Gary Woodard, Richard Scott and Virginia Houston. They have succeeded, with the help of district watchdogs, in forcing the Board and administration out of the closet on other secret dealings, including the money Superintendent Smith and others threw around on parties and gifts. And they have begun to change the course on the district's horrendous real-estate deals.

"Nancy and I have opened things up too much," Smith said of the root of the effort to bounce him. "The recall effort (targeting Woodard, Scott and Houston), at least according to the papers, has the numbers, the signatures, to force an election. They'd like to distract from that. And another factor is they have been reported for serious violations in purchasing and the Open Meetings Law. Nancy and I have been successful in opening things that were closed. They don't like that."

Last Monday, December 20, Ramona Johnston, spokeswoman for recall effort, said the group turned in more than 5,700 signatures demanding a recall election against all three targets. The minimum number required to force a recall is 5,042.

Jaeger is a former counsel to the TUSD Board and actually seems talented compared to his successor. Jaeger also has carried with him other bad habits from TUSD. Primarily, like other school attorneys, he doesn't seem to know whom he represents. It is a problem confronting many school districts, whose lawyers think that it is proper to serve multiple masters -- elected Board members, administrators and departments. It also is a conflict seen at other political bodies -- the Board of Supervisors comes instantly to mind -- where counsel tries to represent officials who are at odds or who have different interests.

Stunned that his lawyer would seek to end his short political career, Smith was forced to hire another lawyer. He got Bill Risner, the talented, understated and self-described former "Kentucky hillbilly" who has tangled with Amphi in the past.

Entering her last year of her eighth term of an office that is an Arizona anachronism, Lohr said Smith should go. Then she pitched the case to County Attorney Barbara LaWall, a Democrat who wants a second term. Taxpayers are footing the bill for this exercise, with Paula N. Wilk, a recent graduate to LaWall's staff from the Cochise County Attorney Office, handling the case.

Arguing before Judge Kenneth Lee of Pima County Superior Court last week, Risner won approval to compel Amphi to turn over documents that are likely to show that Barbara Smith was not considered an employee. Approval for discovery alone was a defeat for Amphi, which much like TUSD, simply believes it is above the law when it comes to public records.

And while Risner pries, Smith will retain his seat for the Amphi Board's January meeting. But he won't vote.

Not voting, Wilk argued, was not an acceptable interim solution. In irony Wilk would not understand, she claimed Smith's "constituency" would be disenfranchised.

The Amphi Board majority, its administrative allies and lawyers, have been cutting out big segments of the Amphi "constituency" for years, critics say.

Even Risner chuckled a little. Smith, he said, was consistently on the losing end of votes. And, enlightening Wilk further, Risner explained that Smith and the others are elected district-wide.

Risner says the case presents a critical test not just for the Amphi early-retirement program but for many school districts and their governing boards across the state.

Among the items Risner has already captured from Amphi files is a September 13, 1993 letter from Joan Leslie, then Amphi's employee benefits specialist, sent to the Social Security Administration that discussed the early retirement program participation of one of Barbara Smith's colleagues.

Leslie's letter to the Social Security helps kill the screwy arguments from Jaeger and LaWall.

It is, save for confidential information including the teacher's name that was redacted, worth repeating here.

"This is to advise you that (this teacher) has not been gainfully employed by Amphitheater School District since his retirement at the close of the school day (in) 1989. At this time (he) was eligible for and consequently selected the district's early retirement incentive plan.

"Under this early retirement plan, (he) receives gross monies every two weeks for 26 pay periods per year until he attains 65 years of age. From this amount federal, state, and FICA taxes are deducted. As an early retiree (he) is eligible for and has elected to receive medical insurance under the district's group plan.

"As a condition of this plan (he) must make himself available as a 'consultant' 20 days each year provided (emphasis added) the district desires to use his services. The monies received are in no way connected with any current services provided by (him). In other words, the total sum received by (him) under the early retirement plan is based on his prior (emphasis added) service with the district.

"If we can be of further assistance in this matter, please do not hesitate to contact my office."

Leslie, since promoted, is sure to be contacted. By Risner.

Risner points out another potential problem for Amphi, should Barbara Smith be declared a current employee of the district. State law forbids teaching contracts longer than one year, so the district's entire early retirement program could be declared illegal.

AS LEE WAS wrapping up the hearing and planning another one in early February, the Board of Supervisors was stumbling its way toward filling the Lohr vacancy. Not surprisingly, the Board -- with Republican Ray Carroll not going along -- made a poor choice.

Linda Arzoumanian, known by critics in TUSD, Amphi and most of the county's 14 other school districts as a "voucher queen," won by default.

"Now we have a Superintendent of Private Instruction at the county and state level," Mike Gordy, president of the Tucson Education Association, said derisively.

Rosalie Lopez, a TUSD Board member who served with Arzoumanian on TUSD's desegregation oversight committee, said she was "absolutely the worst choice."

One qualified candidate, Philip Corkill, former superintendent of Flowing Wells Unified School District, lost on a failed motion from Republican Supervisor Mike Boyd.

Only Carroll, whose aide Scott Egan is married to TUSD teacher and past TEA president Pernela Jones, seemed to be concerned with getting a public education pro.

But his motion for Jo Sinding, a teacher at TUSD's Utterback Middle School, had support only from an unlikely source -- Democratic Supervisors' Chairwoman Sharon Bronson.

Democrat Dan Eckstrom then made an obligatory pitch for Democrat-turned-Republican Larry Bahill, a former legislator, former county elections boss and former county voter registrar. The motion went nowhere before Boyd then moved for Arzoumanian, who works at CODAC Behavioral Health Services.

Only Carroll dissented. The vote angered Gordy and other TEA members and leaders who were counting on Democratic Supervisor Raul Grijalva, who spent three terms on the TUSD Board before landing his county role.

"Obviously he had the opportunity to support a public school teacher and didn't," Gordy said. "I kind of understood that he was going to. I'm just disappointed. He had four options (from a field of eight)."

So was Marilyn Freed, another TEA official.

"Grijalva told me not to worry," Freed said.

Freed also complained she was unsuccessful afterward in getting an explanation from Grijalva.

Meanwhile, Andy Morales, a special education and physical education teacher at Amphi's Rio Vista Elementary School, is already running for the county schools superintendent seat as a Democrat.

Morales said he, too, was disappointed that a private school teacher was chosen.

"I think it's an affront to public school teachers," Morales said.

Still, Morales said he believed he had "an effect" on the appointment because the person Lohr wanted, Lucy Schonbrun, education services coordinator under Lohr, got no support from supervisors.

Morales already has collected the minimum number of nominating petition signatures for the September primary election.