The Big Vote

Will the May 20 Sunnyside recall election change public perceptions of a troubled district?

Maybe no one saw it coming that one day the Tucson Unified School District would face some serious competition for negative media coverage and a unique brand of governing board politics, but that's exactly what's happened with the Sunnyside Unified School District during the past year.

Some in the district are placing all their money on a Tuesday, May 20, recall election that may change the board's voting majority and possibly lead to a change of the district's current leader—Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo.

At the beginning of 2013, Sunnyside seemed to be on an upward trajectory with a growing reputation as a "tech savvy" district that had put laptops in achieving students' hands and had declared war on dropout rates. However, those perceptions changed when it was leaked that Isquierdo had told his staff in early April 2013 that he had accepted a superintendent position in San Antonio.

Isquierdo withdrew his candidacy shortly afterward when personal troubles surfaced—$150,000 owed in federal taxes, more than $12,000 owed in travel charges on his district credit card, unpaid traffic fines and a suspended driver's license, and then the loss of his California and Oro Valley homes.

District residents packed governing board meetings to call for Isquierdo's resignation. The news also exposed growing tensions in the district's governing board because the renewal of Isquierdo's $305,000 annual contract with the district was coming up, and some governing board members questioned whether he should be rehired.

Isquierdo's contract was extended in a 3-2 vote, with board members Buck Crouch and Daniel Hernandez Jr. voting no. Over the summer, a group calling itself Sunnyside Recall 2013 began collecting signatures to recall board members Bobby Gonzales and Louie Garcia, considered Isquierdo supporters. A month later, another group started a recall effort against Hernandez and Crouch in retaliation, but never got enough signatures.

According to Beki Quintero, a candidate in the May 20 election and part of the recall effort against Gonzales and Garcia, she decided to run against them because of how she raised her children.

"I've always told my kids that if you're going to complain about something, you have to come up with a solution. This is a solution," she said.

Quintero, a product of Sunnyside schools who married her high school sweetheart and raised her children in the district, made it clear to the Tucson Weekly that she and fellow candidate Eric Giffin are running as a ticket. Giffin was on the Sunnyside governing board 12 years and was the lone vote against hiring Isquierdo in 2007. The other candidate, Mike Polak, who made an unsuccessful bid for the Ward 5 Tucson City Council seat in the last election, told the Weekly he recognizes that he's the new kid in town, having lived with his daughter in the district for five years, but that doesn't mean that he should not be considered a serious candidate.

Quintero and Giffin said getting rid of Isquierdo is a priority, but not necessarily the first order of business. The board recently approved a 2 percent salary increase for district staff, including Isquierdo.

"He'll get $3,000. Why is he even getting a 2 percent raise? It just makes me so mad," she said.

Quintero also wants to propose a policy that requires background checks for all district employees, including the superintendent and board members.

"You are still around kids all the time—events, graduations. Every board member should be background checked—especially the superintendent. Hey, at least I live in the same district as he is getting paid to work for. That should change, too," she said, referring to Isquierdo's Oro Valley residence.

The personal attacks have intensified since the recall effort started.

In August 2013, anonymous anti-gay fliers attacking Hernandez were distributed, and letters attacking Crouch and Hernandez continue to circulate even though the recall effort against them failed.

On April 2, 2014, Isquierdo tried once again to shake his association with the word "corruption," sending an email to all district employees saying that the district has been vindicated.

"Perhaps the greatest impact of the March 25 Governing Board meeting was a vindication of the continued criticisms and defamation of our District by a handful of critics who throw the 'Corrupt' word around with bravado and indifference. The smearing of our District's image and our integrity as employees has finally been put to rest as reports from the Arizona Attorney General's office, Arizona Auditor General's Office, Arizona Department of Education (ADE), and Pima County Attorney's office have proven there are no corruption concerns for the Sunnyside Unified School District, nor has there been," he wrote.

Recall supporters have "strived to gain increased community support through the use of the Arizona Daily Star and some television news reports for their political end. For them the use of the 'Corrupt' word has been to pursue their platform of taking Sunnyside back to pencil and paper. This group professes to care about students, families and district employees. In truth, however, they have continuously used the 'Corrupt' word with total disregard for the efforts of teachers, staff and administrators to build a positive image that reflects our continued excellence in serving students and this community."

Quintero, who works as recycling and education coordinator for Tucson Clean and Beautiful, says she knows much of what's been put out to the public is lies, and she's contemplating filing a complaint with the Pima County Attorney's Office.

"I'd really like to see the board get along and work together for the betterment of the kids," she said, adding that she and Giffin are the candidates to help make that happen. "He's just one of those nice guys with ethics and morals. He holds himself to a higher level and isn't going to stoop to any of the politics we see now."

Giffin said he never saw this level of divisiveness the last time he served on the board, but he says he knew that corruption wasn't that far off. "We need to do a total restructuring of our administrative department," he said.

There may be legal expenses involved in dismissing Isquierdo, so Giffin suggests that a new board at least neutralize him and begin the process of creating a new image for the district. District voters need to pass an override, and both classified and unclassified staff need to feel like they can work in a district without fear of retribution, he said.

"People won't even talk to each other (because there is so much distrust)," Giffin said.

Polak said he's troubled by an email he received April 30 from the Pima County School Superintendent's Office asking to confirm his intention to withdraw from the election. Polak responded that he wasn't dropping out and asked where the information came from.

Polak said he was told that the office had received a call from a Star reporter. Polak called the Star and was told no such call was made.

"They are saying they got a phone call,

but phone records can be pulled. This is a dirty trick," Polak said.

Polak said that despite all the mudslinging he hopes voters keep in mind that he deserves a chance to show that he can best serve the kids of the district.

"I want to see a full independent financial audit. We need to rebuild trust in this district. That's the right direction," he said.

The Weekly attempted to contact Bobby Garcia and Louie Gonzales for comment, but only Gonzales responded. Gonzales said the district has received numerous awards for excellence, and that all districts are facing state cuts in spending. He also said allegations that graduation numbers aren't what they seem are unfounded.

Gonzales said the real problem is Hernandez and Crouch—new board members who've never understood board protocol and do not recognize the danger in raising corruption allegations. The allegations include Gonzales having helped hire family members who live in the district.

"My son is a teacher. He could teach at TUSD and make more money, but he works at Sunnyside," he said. "But that's not the point. I've never been involved in that hiring."

Gonzales said the community was once close-knit, but is now divided and he suspects it will only get worse after the election.

"People said, 'Why not resign,' Gonzales recalled. "But our supporters said, 'No. You'll have to go down fighting.'"