A Controversial Career

Despite lawsuits, U.S. District Court Judges, angry parents -- and more -- Ireland says he hasn't preached to the choir

"I'm proud of my 16 years of service and record on the board," Joel Ireland recently told a small group attending a public forum of TUSD candidates. But his record is littered with controversy and allegations ranging from micromanagement to a divisive political style.

Early in 1993, Ireland led the charge to close Catalina High School, tremendously upsetting hundreds of students, parents, school neighbors and local government officials. Even though renovating the school had been a major reason voters were given for passing a bond issue in 1989, with most of the construction work still undone four years later, Ireland wanted the funds used instead to build a new, southwest-side high school. A federal judge, however, ruled the closure would violate the district's desegregation order, so Catalina remained open.

Looking back on that traumatic episode, Ireland still thinks it was the correct call. "It should have been a local decision, not made by a judge," he says. "Voters had a political remedy--they could throw me out of office." While an unsuccessful recall drive was launched against him then, Ireland now believes history has proven him right. He thinks schools today in southwest Tucson are overcrowded and that a new high school is still needed there.

In 1998, Ireland was among three board members accused of micromanaging the district by their two associates. According to the Arizona Daily Star, the majority was charged with "intruding in individual schools' business and undermining administrators." Ireland responded that the two objectors were acting "infantile" and that their complaints were "ridiculous."

That same year, information about sexual harassment charges levied against a TUSD administrator was provided to the Star. Ireland pushed to find whoever leaked the documents, while also trying to prevent the newspaper from publishing the information. For his efforts, the Star blasted the school board member in an editorial titled "Joel Ireland's witch hunt."

In retrospect, Ireland now says he made an error in that case. Trying to find out who leaked the material was appropriate, he thinks, but attempting to prevent publication of it was a mistake.

The following year, Ireland was among a majority of the board that aggressively pursued the use of $879 in faculty fund monies by Tucson High School principal Cecilia Mendoza. She used it to mail a meeting notice to parents, a move that greatly angered one of Ireland's fellow board members. As a result, the district launched a criminal investigation of Mendoza's action, a move that went nowhere.

Believing her effectiveness as principal had been eroded because of the public accusations made against her, Mendoza left her job. She then filed suit against the district, claiming she had been defamed, and eventually reached a six-figure settlement.

Ireland says he absolutely had the proper position in that case. "She took school money for a private purpose," he charges. "The board has been put in office to watch the use of public money."

Ireland has faced other allegations over the years. His critics allege he has helped appoint his friends as principals and to school administration jobs, that he wasted enormous sums of taxpayers' money fighting certain lawsuits filed against the district, that he had legal information intentionally withheld from some school board members in the Paul Felix case (see "Sex Ed" by Chris Limberis, June 13, 2002) and for a while--as a member of the agenda committee--he even refused to allow public discussion of any items proposed by his board opponents.

Barbara Krider served for almost 20 years (until 1996) on TUSD's desegregation monitoring committee and says of Ireland, "He carries valuable institutional memory and knowledge of TUSD, and of public education, in a troubled time for both. In my opinion, however, he has too often tended to steamroller people when in pursuit of his agenda."

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