Balentine's Day

Amphi's New Board Embraces A New Superintendent.

WHEN DAD, A highway patrolman, was transferred to the Highway 60 wide spot of Wenden in western Arizona, young Vicki Eileen McCleod received that year's education in a one-room school house that accommodated first through sixth grades.

That was some 44 years ago. There were other moves, to Quartzsite and back to Phoenix. Now Vicki McCleod Balentine, after a 29-year-career with the Tucson Unified School District, will lead the Amphitheater Unified School District.

Chosen on a unanimous vote on the first real act by the new Amphi Board on May 23, Balentine began her job as superintendent of the 19-school, 16,000-student Amphi system on Monday, June 12, one week after her 50th birthday.

Balentine is leaving an assistant superintendent position that she held for less than three years at TUSD to join an Amphi Board seeking to heal a troubled district scarred by years of stiffly polarized political fights between a faction of administrators with decades-old Board allies, and progressive politicos who've infiltrated that old guard in recent years. The 1996 election of Nancy Young Wright was followed in 1998 by the election of Ken Smith, culminating with the clean-sweep recall election victories of Kent Barrabee, Mike Prout and Mary Schuh on May 16, 2000.

"She is head and shoulders above the other finalists," Barrabee said of Amphi's new superintendent. "Beyond head and shoulders."

The other two, also toting doctorates, were Thomas McCraley, a former superintendent in Kissimmee, Florida; and Julian Stafford, superintendent at New London, Connecticut, Public Schools. McCraley brought a little baggage and negative press, particularly about his high pay and raises in Florida at a time when teachers were complaining of being cheated.

Balentine, who received her bachelor's and master's degrees as well as her doctorate from the University of Arizona, rose from a kindergarten teacher to her current job and along the way was a drop-out prevention coordinator, and curriculum specialist.

She replaces Robert Smith, a controversial superintendent who was the glove to the hand of the last, voter-ousted Board majority that included Virginia Houston, Richard Scott and Gary Woodard.

"This isn't going to be about me," Balentine said, adding that she's encouraged that all parties in Amphi are eager to "move forward."

Balentine already is talking up the district, saying it's one that has consistently produced high achievement rates and schools that parents so want their kids to attend that they move into the district.

Balentine and her lawyer husband live in the neighboring, more chic Catalina Foothills School District.

It's a job that Balentine, who had an early role model in a school-teaching grandmother, planned for. She was undaunted by the roiling politics and real-estate controversies of Amphi.

"You knew you could be political fodder," Balentine said of the national-search application process that began under the old Board and was finished as soon as the new Board was seated. "But once they choose, it's time to be ready for everybody to move forward."

Schuh, who in her government watchdog suit was a constant critic of Smith, says Balentine "will do a really good job. She's nobody's fool and she'll hold people to high standards."

Balentine will come in at an awkward time, just 18 days before the start of the 2000-2001 fiscal year. She'll have little time for detailed input on the budget that will carry Amphi through the first of her three-year contract. She said that given money constraints, she'd be unlikely under any circumstances to seek to raise spending.

She also said she has no detailed or site-specific challenges or tasks. "I need to do an assessment of the entire operation," she said.

Balentine and her supporters say she'll work to communicate with all groups. As she puts it, she'll work to eliminate "flashpoints."

She has had a few at TUSD, however.

Balentine came under fire last year from parents at Roskruge Bilingual School on two fronts: the lack of a reviewed and approved safety plan, and failure by Roskruge Principal Conrado Gomez to follow protocol on the issue of school uniforms. Parents at Roskruge Bilingual School, across Sixth Street from Tucson High School, had been pressing Gomez and TUSD administration for completion of the required but long-delayed safety plan. Fears, already high because of the Columbine High School massacre, were increased when an on-leave Marine set up explosives outside Roskruge as a prank on the first weekend in May last year.

When parents met at Roskruge several nights later, Balentine repeatedly ducked questions about the safety plan.

"We didn't feel she was supportive at all. She wouldn't return our calls and she wouldn't answer our questions that night until after the seventh time (TUSD Board member) Rosalie Lopez asked her to respond," said Lilia Olivas, a Roskruge parent. "We wanted to have that safety plan in place."

Roskruge, in the last academic year, was placed under supervision of another TUSD assistant superintendent, Roger Pfeuffer.

Balentine said the safety plan was made difficult by the Columbine tragedy and that anxiety at Roskruge and the planning that followed were not unique, but also occurring at "every school in the nation."

Olivas and other parents also complained about Balentine on the issue of school uniforms and Gomez's handling of that issue. Gomez retired this year.

And at Hohokam Middle School on the far southwest side, Balentine's performance generated criticism from a key Native American activist and parent.

Sharon Madril, the president of TUSD's Indian Education Parent Committee and an advocate for Native American students, called Balentine "worthless for Native American students here. She was defensive and she turned her back on us. It's good for us that she's leaving. She was not even courteous, let alone respectful."

Madril, the only woman to win one of the 11 Pasqua Yaqui Council seats in the June 5 election, saw her service as an advocate for a Yaqui student at Hohokam interrupted when Balentine threatened to have her removed from the campus.

Questioned about the controversy, Balentine says only that Madril was not the student's parent.

At Amphi, Balentine will be paid $98,500 annually, and will have a $6,300 auto allowance and $2,000 expense account, also annually.

BALENTINE ENTERS with rock-solid support from a new Amphi that has equally solid electoral command.

The canvass of the May 16 election shows recall targets Houston, Scott and Woodard managed victories at only one of the 23 polling places, and one that combined two of the district's 53 precincts.

That lone sweep by members of the former majority came from voters in Amphi's northern hamlet of Catalina in Precinct 281 (Houston's home precinct), and Precinct 188. Catalina also is the home turf of former Amphi Board President Vicki Cox-Golder. There, Houston received 52 percent of the vote to Prout's 48 percent in the two Catalina precincts. While Prout beat her on election day at the polls, 105 votes to 98, Houston had 14 more votes from early and absentee ballots.

Scott edged Barrabee in Catalina by 2.3 percentage points--a mere six votes. And Woodard posted a 10-point margin over Schuh in Catalina.

Woodard also defeated Schuh in Oro Valley's Precinct 360, by 382 votes to 350--just over 4 percentage points.

Woodard's third victory came in a polling place that combined Oro Valley country clubs, the affluent Precincts 310 and 361, and Tortolita's rowdy, rural Precinct 200. The canvass provides no detailed split among precincts that are combined into polling places.

But Schuh blasted Woodard in the polling place that included his own East Lind Road home and neighborhood. Schuh grabbed 56 percent of the combined vote in Precincts 58, 59 and 288, an area that covers Fort Lowell Road to Glenn Street, and First Avenue to Campbell Avenue.

In her own neighborhood on Roller Coaster Road near Lulu Walker School, Schuh's victory was rolled into her 18-point advantage in three clustered precincts.

Overall Schuh, a rabble-rousing government watchdog whose targets for more than 10 years have included Amphi, Pima County and Pima Community College, had 53 percent of the vote.

Barrabee and Prout had an easier time. Barrabee got 60 percent of the vote in his duel with Scott, who had served on the Amphi board for 24 years. Prout, who in some precincts scored triple Houston's votes, ended up with 65 percent overall.

In the polling place that included his home precinct, 13, in Oro Valley, Barrabee smashed Scott by getting 67 percent of the vote. And for the polling place that combined five precincts, including Scott's home, north of River Road and east of La Canada, Barrabee won by a whopping 35 points.

Prout posted a 13-point victory over Houston in the polling place that includes his Oro Valley precinct.

The sweeping, block-by-block victory stands as the "indication that people were ready for change," said Diana Boros, a longtime Amphi reformer who managed Schuh's campaign.

"It is not surprising because they were so ready. We're heading into a whole new arena. The Legislature needs to realize that it cannot underfund schools and education and then wonder why test scores are low. Consequently, we needed to have a united front and it was obvious that the old majority wasn't going to get that accomplished," Boros said. "I look forward to seeing Amphi through a whole new lens."

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