Schoolyard Scuffle

Three Reformers Face Two Challengers In The Amphi School District.

IN 1996, NANCY Young Wright was making her first run for the Amphi School District Governing Board. Today, she's seeking re-election as the board's senior member.

The astonishing turnaround came through four years of bitter battle in the fast-growing school district, whose 16,000 students live in neighborhoods stretching from the intersection of Grant Road and Campbell Avenue out to the town of Oro Valley. The tumultuous times included, among other problems, a court fight to build a new high school in the habitat of the endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl; continuing questions about the district's land-acquisition policies; conflict over school calendars; teacher sickouts over pay issues; and an ongoing crusade to return call to the audience to Amphi board meetings.

Wright, 40, was a minority of one until 1998, when retired UA professor Ken Smith booted chair Mike Bernal off the board. Smith allied himself with Wright, but the two often found themselves on the losing side of 3-2 votes.

Voter dissatisfaction grew so intense that a recall election last May saw reform-minded candidates knock off the ruling majority. Gary Woodard was defeated by tax watchdog Mary Schuh; Virginia Houston was beaten by Mike Prout, a space-flight project manager at the UA; and Richard Scott lost to Kent Barrabee, a Harvard-educated instructor who teaches education and child-development courses at Pima Community College.

On the same night they were sworn in, the new board hired a new superintendent, Vicki Balentine, to replace retiring Superintendent Bob Smith, who left the district as his critics steadily increased. All three board members running for re-election say they're extremely pleased with Balentine's performance since she took the reins of the administration.

The new board has already cut $400,000 from the district's budget, largely in administrative costs. They trimmed the staff and board travel budget by 75 percent, saving an estimated $66,000, and reduced the budget for outside attorney's fees by $40,000. They've set strict policies for administrative cell phone use and restricted personal use of Amphi's sedan fleet. They saved $18,000 by eliminating the School Views newsletter, a mailer famous for its glowing profiles of board members that the Amphi administration had mailed out shortly before elections in previous years.

The cost-cutting measures have allowed the Amphi administration to afford recent raises for teachers, increase pay for substitute teachers and reverse cuts to arts, music and physical education courses.

"We want to do more of the same," says the 53-year-old Prout. "We want to continue to rebuild the district, continue to provide accountability, continue to act as the taxpayers' watchdog as to where money gets spent, and make sure the money gets to the classroom. That's the most important thing: money to the classroom. That means better pay for employees, better facilities, all across the board."

The new board is also pushing to see a new high school opened next fall to relieve overcrowding at CDO High.

Less than six months into their terms, Prout and Barrabee are already seeking re-election. They're working closely with Wright in their campaigns against two challengers, Jeff Grant and Ken Hegland

Grant, who works as human resources director for the Town of Oro Valley, nearly ran for the board in 1998, but opted to drop out of the race after talking with since-ousted incumbents Mike Bernal and Gary Woodard.

"I have a longstanding interest in the welfare of kids in the community and I think a school board is an obvious way for somebody who does lean in that direction to get involved," the 54-year-old Grant says. "I feel the real mission of the Amphi School District is to provide our kids with the best educational opportunities we can give them, and we at times in the past have lost sight of that focus."

Grant says he wants to see more district resources put into the classroom. He wants to pursue "alternative funding sources" and lobby the often tightfisted Arizona Legislature for additional funding.

The 59-year-old Hegland is a law professor at the University of Arizona, where he has taught for three decades. He also serves on the board of Southern Arizona Legal Aid.

Hegland has a number of ideas to tap former alumni and local business leaders for private contributions to the district. He suggests sponsoring a fundraising walk for Amphi or selling naming rights to school rooms. He even suggests local contributors might want to sponsor individual teachers, such as creating a "Jim Click elementary teacher."

Hegland and Grant have both tapped former Amphi board members for campaign help. Among those gathering nomination signatures for both were former Amphi Board members Vicki Cox-Golder, the real estate broker who left the school board in 1996 for an unsuccessful run for the Pima County Board of Supervisors; and Bernal, the former Amphi Board president whom voters tossed out in 1998. Bernal's wife Melinda also aided both candidates, as did Cathy Cross, another supporter of Bernal and Woodard. Ousted board member Virginia Houston appointed Grant to the Amphi's budget committee last year; he served alongside Hegland's wife, Barbara Sattler, who was appointed by the couple's neighbor, former board member Woodard.

Although he says he opposed the recall, Hegland wants to avoid the controversial subjects that led to the revolution in Amphi. In one campaign letter, he said Amphi voters "have to forget the past."

"I'm not at all interested in talking about anything that's happened in the past or vindicating people or passing blame," Hegland says. "The district has just got to get moving on with things. I think it's been really unfortunate and I really want to move beyond it."

Hegland says the previous board majority made missteps, such as the resistance to restoring a call to the audience at board meetings, which Hegland says was "horrendously stupid."

"There were a lot of mistakes made," Hegland says. "I think this thing about call to the audience was a horrible mistake."

The incumbents say the new administration has raised morale among staff in the Amphi district. They say the board has a fresh civility that has been lacking for nearly four years.

"The two non-incumbents may be very nice folks, but we already have a team that's working extremely well together," says the 60-year-old Barrabee.

The three incumbents say they're eager to get to work on issues related to curriculum, class size, salaries and planning.

"We opened up a corrupt system that had been in place for nearly 30 years," Wright says. "Now that we have a really talented, intelligent professional leading the district, if we can give her the support she needs and people know the climate is safe now, we're going to see all kinds of good things start to happen. Hopefully, the beneficiaries of all of this will, number one, be the students, and number two, the teachers and the rest of the staff."

Contact Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel at Nintzel appears every Friday at 6:30 p.m. during the Reporter's Roundtable segment on KUAT-TV's Arizona Illustrated. He's also a regular panelist on Emil Franzi's Inside Track radio show each Wednesday at 1 p.m.