Final Exam

Three Candidates Seek To Unseat Amphi's Ruling Majority.

THERE IS A type of knock on a door, one demonstrated by import muscle Furio of HBO's Soprano family, that you can't ignore. Loud. Pounding. Relentless. Ya better open. The alternative will certainly bring greater wrath.

Three Amphitheater School Board members are hearing that knock. Gary Woodard, Virginia Houston and Richard Scott are facing a recall election, spurred by 5,700 Amphi voters who, in the short span of 120 days, signed their names to a petition to force out the ruling majority.

Barring the unlikely intervention of the state Supreme Court, on May 16 board president Woodard will face Mary Schuh, the 65-year-old taxpayer advocate known for her stinging barbs about government waste; Houston will face Mike Prout, a space-science program manager at the University of Arizona; and Scott will face Kent Barrabee, a Pima Community College instructor.

The recall targets have done all they can to avoid facing voters on May 16. Woodard, Houston and Scott first tried to ignore the recall, then repeatedly ran to Superior Court in an failed effort to stop it. Late last week, they petitioned the state Supreme Court to derail the election.

Their supporters, meanwhile, have belatedly erected campaign signs in the district's northern precincts, patterned after the multitude of signs erected by the challengers.

Woodard, Houston and Scott are seeking the comfort of each other in this campaign, both in court and on the stump. Their joint statement attempts to paint the challengers as misinformed. But their own statement misleads voters several ways. They claim they didn't vote to buy property that was polluted, when in fact it was. They also inaccurately lower the legal cost of pursuing the construction of a new high school at Shannon and Naranja. They misrepresent the purpose and findings of a budget advisory committee and try to pass off budget awards that are routinely given out to thousands of school districts as affirmation that spending is under control. Finally, the incumbents' joint statement falsely claims they oversee a district with the "lowest school taxes in the county." In fact, Amphi has the sixth-lowest tax rate among the county's 16 school districts.

Woodard, a UA researcher with specialty on water issues such as the effectiveness of patio misters, won a place on Amphi the same way he once longed for one on the Tucson City Council: by appointment. In 1998, he was lucky to keep it during an election in which the district's second reformer, Ken Smith, breezed through with nearly 40 percent in a three-way race for two seats. Smith won 48 of 51 precincts.

Woodard is facing a tough opponent in Schuh, who has launched scathing attacks against Amphi's board and administration. A former substitute teacher at Amphi, Schuh has been critical of the district's land-acquisition policies, its relationship with the non-profit Amphi Extension Program (AEP), and the Board's long resistance to allowing constituents to speak at an open call to the audience. (See "Recall and Remembrance" for details).

A longtime resident of the neighborhood around Amphi's Lulu Walker School who has served on Amphi's recently created volunteer budget committee, Schuh offers detailed critiques of the district's spending that come from close examination of budget lines. She complains that district officials have stonewalled requests about administrative cell phone bills and details about the legal relationship between Amphi and the non-profit AEP, which uses district resources without a legal contract.

In a recent forum, Schuh displayed her smarts when a questioner asked about funding to operate a new high school. She was able to recite numbers about what was needed, how much has been reserved for the opening and where the money will come from. She also is the only one who can actually tell you what the district's tax rate is and what that figure means to a homeowner.

She also appeals to voters on common and common-sense issues. Bond funds have not been spent in needy schools, leaving students shut out of necessary classroom space. She gets into such detail that she can talk about how the boys don't have enough bathrooms at Amphi High School because money hasn't been spent for repairs.

For all her fury at government, Schuh has had to show that she won't get on the board to just fight and to simply attack. She has pressed for simple board reforms and for the members to treat the public -- and each other -- with respect.

The disdain by the current board, she says, is revealed by poor agenda management or agenda manipulation that creates overflow crowds for meetings that "begin on a Tuesday and end on Wednesday." She promises to stop the district's habit of making key decisions around midnight or in the early morning.

Woodard, in his John Malkovich voice, says "these are best of times and the worst of times" for Amphi. Best for the number of top-rated schools in the district, the increased test scores and graduation rates.

Woodard is painting Schuh as a woman with an ax to grind -- and, once it's sharpened, she'll use it to cut anything and everything. In a forum last weekend put on by Schuh's pet advocacy organization, the Pima Association of Taxpayers, Woodard went after Schuh, whose caustic views on county, city, state and school spending are posted on the taxpayer association's newsletters. But when he did, he mischaracterized or exaggerated her views on teacher career ladders.

The key points in Woodard's criticism of Schuh also were found in an amateurish hit piece attacking Schuh. The anonymous campaign literature, circulated recently in Amphi schools, is illegal because it does not list who produced it. Groups or individuals who take such action to influence an election must report their activities with the county Elections Division.

IT DOESN'T TAKE a rocket scientist to figure out that Amphi has problems -- but there's one in the race, anyway. Mike Prout is a space-flight project manager at the UA, where he manages an annual budget of $40 million -- about two-thirds the size of Amphi's. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and the University of Southern California. Direct but pleasant, Prout is taking on Houston.

The father of three Amphi students, Prout says he became accutely aware of Amphi's troubling lack of planning in the high school debacle and in crowding in lower grades.

Though he has been careful not to pick on Houston, he did say in the joint forum that he would treat his opposition's family and children better than it had treated his.

Prout, perhaps more emphatically than his running mates, says the battle over the Naranja site high school has long since passed. He insists that construction must continue at the site, but he's equally clear that the incumbents must pay the price, politically, for their failure to do what he says is the paramount responsibility under state law: provide school space for the district's 16,000 students. The high school site selection was bereft of due diligence, Prout says.

In his clear message about planning, Prout also is clear that impact fees are necessary from developers who are selling the district as an advantage and stuffing kids in Amphi schools.

For her part, Houston is bemoaning what she calls a "sad day" for Amphi that it has come to political acrimony and recall. She contended with hostile forces in last week's forum defending while attempting to defend the district's land purchases.

When one smart-ass questioner accused her and the board of buying property owned by former Amphi Board member Vicki Cox-Golder, Houston became animated. She denounced the question as a "bald-faced lie," and further defended her right to respond when another audience member whined that she was picking on the questioner.

She stumbled badly when discussing the most controversial land buy, saying she would have "plowed it under" years ago if she had her choice. Everything, she added, was going just fine until "they wanted to make it all legal."

And when asked how the new high school operations would be funded, Houston, oddly, declined to provide an answer.

RICHARD SCOTT HAS sat on the Amphi Board for nearly 24 years. A retired professor at the University of Arizona's College of Business and Public Administration, Scott isn't a strong campaigner -- he barely kept his seat in 1992 for a fifth term, edging political newcomer Skip Whitley Jr. by just 38 votes (10,445 to 10,407). In 1996, he ran a distant third behind reformer Nancy Young, who claimed 45 of the district's 51 precincts, and Houston, who won the other six by small margins.

Scott winces at times and is defiant at others. At last weekend's forum, he expressed his pride in Amphi and the district's students.

Scott conceded that the board was struggling for funds for the new school operations and candidly admitted "not enough" money had been set aside. Then he hinted at a tax increase, saying that a budget override might be needed.

Showing signs of a polite, almost courtly official that critics say he is not, Scott said more emphasis needed to be placed on education by the Legislature.

The board's bad image and the fallen image of the district, he said, is the result of "philosophical differences" within the board, a slightly decorated message to minority members, Nancy Young Wright and Ken Smith.

His opponent, the Harvard-educated Barrabee, had praise for all, saying that indeed Woodard, Houston and Scott had worked hard. But he added that the serious differences splitting the board called for change because the current board had lost the trust of Amphi parents and voters.

Trust is a central theme for Barrabee, whose wife, a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District, provided a spirited defense of her husband last week when an Amphi voter said she was miffed that Barrabee would not commit to run for a full term in November if he wins on May 16.

Barrabee, an instructor at Pima Community College who teaches education and child-development courses, wants a full, outside audit, perhaps above and beyond what is annually required now not only to show him about current spending but to engender support from voters when Amphi needs an override or bond election.

The high school site is moot, he says.

"I was screaming eight years ago for that new high school," says Barrabee, a former longtime teacher in Amphi who also is the father of Amphi graduates.

The call-to-the-audience battle, which the recall candidates point to as a symbol of the ruling majority's intolerance of the public, showed that the current board "perceived citizens as enemies," Barrabee said. "That was most unfortunate."

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