Deseg Dispute

Legal battles over the $60 million-per-year effort continue at TUSD.

TUSD central command is at war with the court-required committee that reviews the school system's desegregation efforts, which have lingered with little result for more than 25 years--despite spending that tops $60 million annually.

Members of the Independent Citizens Committee want their own lawyer to represent them in U.S. District Court and to boost their powers to force the Tucson Unified School District to show results.

Lawyers for TUSD, in documents made public Monday, swatted the request, saying the ICC was never granted authority beyond reviewing district desegregation plans and simply advising the school board that appoints committee members.

"Nowhere does the stipulation enable the ICC to act as an enforcer ... to participate in court proceedings related to any issue in the case or to retain counsel of its own," Richard Yetwin told Judge Alfredo C. Marquez in a response filed Sept. 25.

Yetwin, of DeConcini McDonald Yetwin Lacy, also stepped up the battle with the blessing of TUSD's in-house counsel and administration to haul in eight members of the voluntary Independent Citizens Committee for depositions that will begin next week.

Fallout from the shifting and controversial reorganizations issued by Superintendent Stan Paz and his closest advisers has helped fuel the current and costly battle with the Independent Citizens Committee.

In May, the committee issued a letter of concern that Paz's multiple "restructuring had placed the ICC and equity development (the district equal opportunity and investigative arm) under the district's legal counsel ... creating a conflict of interest."

With the ICC seeking tougher means to hold Paz and the TUSD board accountable for chronic failure to desegregate while charging taxpayers more than $60 million a year, the result of the reorganization was to stifle criticism, members believed. That was amplified by the presence of TUSD's controversial in-house counsel, Jane Butler, who has worked to expand her power while she and Paz drove out other administrators and lawyers.

Parents of African-American students sued TUSD nearly 30 years ago, complaining that their children were relegated to separate schools. They were joined by Mexican-American parents.

The stipulated agreement that TUSD reached with parents of African-American students and Mexican-American students in 1978 followed four years of litigation to force TUSD to end its segregation. The late Judge William Frey wrote then that for Mexican Americans, "nine schools suffered current effects of the past intentionally segregative acts." And he wrote that TUSD "had failed to dismantle its former dual school system for Blacks and non-Blacks and had continued since 1954 (the year of the Supreme Court landmark decision outlawing separate but equal schools) to discriminate against Black elementary and junior high school students."

Since 1978, successive TUSD governing boards and administrators have been content to grossly inflate budgets, using limitless property taxes to "eliminate vestiges of segregation." Desegregation spending, ranging from almost constant legal services to rudimentary items like locksmiths, has exploded in 25 years from zero to more than $62 million.

Outraged taxpayers have had only minor success in reducing the desegregation budget, which is particularly onerous on small business, by prevailing upon legislators to cap the amount. Still, it has grown to nearly one-fifth of TUSD's budget.

As the ICC escalated its criticism, Butler and district officials took a hard line, threatening to strip the committee of its information and data.

In a pointed exchange in November 2001, ICC member Laurence Berlin, a lawyer recruited by senior TUSD board member Joel T. Ireland, asked, "Is it the district's position that there is or is not too much segregation in TUSD?"

He never got a clear answer, records show, not even from Yetwin, who was one of the two lawyers who defended TUSD in the original segregation lawsuit.

Since its creation in 1979, the Independent Citizens Committee has been relegated to issuing an annual report on TUSD desegregation plans. It has alternately been, through the years, a rubber-stamp, non-producing and aggressive.

Berlin has angled to get on the deseg payroll for nearly three years. He first took a controversial step of seeking to represent longtime plaintiff Maria Mendoza, with a surprising petition to Marquez that asked for $250 an hour. Mendoza, whose children are grown, and her class of plaintiffs have been without regular counsel since Michael Zavala was disbarred in 1997, not long before he died.

Shot down and the target of conflict of interest accusations, Berlin then won approval on July 16 from his ICC colleagues to resign from the committee in order to represent it in federal court.

Money also is at the root of this dispute.

Berlin, in court papers filed earlier this month, noted that his was not "pro bono work." The motion was done with "what one of the committee members called 'a hopeful heart' that the court will appoint Mr. Berlin to represent the ICC and be paid by the school district."

Berlin then ripped Yetwin's firm for drawing "approximately half a million dollars" in desegregation money for the year.

"This statement," Yetwin fired back, "is patently false."

"Only" $100,000 was budgeted and, Yetwin noted, his firm was paid $164,607 in the last three years.

A hearing on the matter is pending.

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