Clown Time Is Over

Boot The Ruling Majority In The Amphi School District.

IT'S PAST TIME for change in the Amphi School District.

The ruling majority of Gary Woodard, Richard Scott and Virginia Houston have so outraged their constituents that they have been targeted in a recall election this Tuesday, May 16.

Woodard is facing Mary Schuh, a longtime government watchdog; Houston is facing Mike Prout, a spaceflight project manager at the University of Arizona; and Scott is facing Kent Barrabee, an instructor at Pima Community College.

The three targeted school board members know they're in trouble. They've desperately tried to scuttle the recall election through the court system, but failed at every turn.

Belatedly realizing they would have to face the public, the incumbents began their campaign. And one of their first moves reveals exactly why they shouldn't hold office any longer. In an astonishing act of chutzpah, they purchased a list of names and addresses of students and parents from the school district for $65. (For the disgraceful details, see Chris Limberis' "Breaking Records" on page 6.)

It's an appalling misuse of district resources for political purposes -- and if it doesn't violate district policy, it sure as hell ought to. The incumbents should be ashamed of themselves for invading the privacy of students and their families to save their political hides -- which surely need saving. A brief recap of the Amphi follies of the last six years:

· For more than a year, the governing board refused to consider allowing parents and taxpayers to address the board in an open call to the audience. The ruling majority spent thousands of dollars in legal fees to find a way to avoid allowing their constituents to address them, but the public's persistence paid off when the ruling majority finally agreed to allow an open call. In an Orwellian twist, now that the new policy is in place, the incumbents boast that the district is one of the most responsive in the state.

· Teachers have struggled for years to earn decent paychecks, while administrators -- particularly outgoing Superintendent Robert Smith -- have seen their salaries regularly increase.

· A non-profit offshoot of the district, a daycare operation called the Amphi Extension Program, established a slush fund that paid for parties and retreats for board members and administrators at the same time the employees of AEP were earning minuscule wages and low-income parents were facing tuition hikes for their kids.

· The district spent $2.5 million on two land purchases without appraising the properties -- or even getting an environmental assessment.

· The district's repeated failure to comply with requests for public records related to these land deals earned Amphi the Brick Wall Award from the Arizona Press Club, the state's largest association of professional journalists.

· One of those suspect parcels had a tiny neighbor -- a nesting endangered cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. As a result of Amphi's lack of due diligence, the high school construction is two years behind schedule, with hundreds of thousands of dollars spent in legal fees and other related costs.

In a recent radio interview, Woodard claimed the pygmy owl "was not on anybody's radar screens" in 1994.

Given his own in-depth involvement in pygmy owl litigation, surely he's aware that environmental organizations first filed to have the bird listed in 1992. The owls near the school site were being monitored in 1993, the year before the district bought the property. We'll never know if an environmental assessment would have raised a red flag, because the district didn't bother with one.

But Woodard didn't stop twisting the truth there: he flat-out lied when he said the three candidates running against the incumbents wanted to stop building the new high school. On the contrary, all three insist construction should continue. But they point out, as did board member Nancy Young Wright, that the money spent defending the right to build the new high school could have been spent finding a new site -- and the school might even be open already.

The challengers are not wild-eyed environmentalists trying to save the pygmy owl. They're pragmatic people who are weary of the disgraceful way their school board has behaved.

We have our disagreements with Mary Schuh, but we're sure she'll keep a closer eye on the Amphi administration than Gary Woodard has. Mike Prout is a calm voice of reason who has challenged Virginia Houston because, as he puts it, "I'm sick of the current board's method of doing business." And Kent Barrabee, who is running against Richard Scott, has a long career in education.

While they disagree on some issues, all three challengers agree on one thing: for too long, the district has operated behind closed doors.

When Nancy Young Wright was first elected to the Amphi School District Governing Board in 1996, her colleagues made it clear that she shouldn't rock the boat. In conversations and correspondence, they told her conflicts should be handled quietly and out of the public eye.

But Wright wasn't going to do the public's business behind closed doors. Instead, she began raising questions that made her fellow board members and Amphi administrators very uncomfortable -- questions about the district's sloppy land deals, for example. As a result, she was hammered by the board's ruling majority.

But Wright showed her courage by refusing to back down. And in 1998, voters booted Mike Bernal, the board president who had been leading the charge against Wright, in favor of retired UA professor Ken Smith, who campaigned on a reform platform.

Now it's time to finish the job. Dump Gary Woodard, Virginia Houston and Richard Scott by voting for Mary Schuh, Mike Prout and Kent Barrabee on May 16.