Role Model

A TUSD assistant high school principal was in trouble with drugs a mere five years ago.

Apollo Middle School teacher Francisco Moraga was not a very positive role model that day in May five years ago, when a Pima County detective busted him for possession of cocaine, marijuana and drug paraphernalia.

But today, Moraga is away from that Sunnyside Unified School District scene and is a rising star at Tucson High School, the flagship school of the region's largest school system, the Tucson Unified School District.

Moraga served no time for reduced charges and successfully completed the conditions set by the Drug Court within Pima County Superior Court. Bolstered by powerful figures in education in Tucson, he has since catapulted into an assistant principal position at Tucson High.

He fast-tracked from a permanent substitute job at eastside Booth-Fickett in the 2000-01 school year, to science teacher at Tucson High in August 2001. Within two months, he got boosted to the bilingual coordinator and department chairman, making almost $40,000.

Moraga has soared with support from Raul Nido, the principal at Sunnyside High School, Larry McKee, principal at Tucson High, and Abel Morado, the highly regarded principal who left his post at TUSD's Santa Rita High School to become the district's director for employee relations.

Neither Nido nor Morado returned calls from The Weekly. McKee was said to be out of town.

Not surprisingly, Moraga would prefer to keep his arrest and subsequent matriculation through Drug Court in the past, where it was buried with the help of state law that erases the charges and a court that seals the records.

TUSD applications seek information about felony convictions. Omissions or lies result in termination. But Moraga was able to leave that portion blank because any conviction was set aside by his completion of Drug Court requirements.

Polite but guarded, Moraga said it is not the many "storms I've been through in my life" that should mark his career and life, as a father of twin girls, but "the ship that I brought into port."

That appears to be the focus of forgiving TUSD leadership. Moraga has consistently been ranked at the top of pools for prospective school administrators.

"I've been blessed by God," Moraga said.

Screening committees and TUSD officials have been told by Jane Butler, TUSD legal counsel, that they may not consider Moraga's arrest and completion of the court-ordered drug treatment and probation.

Yet Moraga says he has climbed TUSD's often slippery ladder by being "very honest and up front" with an issue that he paradoxically "does not care to advertise."

"Hopefully," Moraga said, "that means that I'm doing what is needed."

When a sheriff's detective nailed him for possession of cocaine, possession of less than two pounds of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia--including a foil pipe, razor blade, tin box and plastic baggie--Moraga was looking at the possibility of jail.

Moraga, 46, grew up in Nogales. Of the dope arrest, he said he made a mistake.

"It was human error. I'm a human being. Nobody's perfect," he said. "It's a chapter in my life."

And one that he is working to keep closed. Asked if he was abusing illicit drugs at that time, Moraga said he "preferred not" to answer.

"My concern is for my family. I don't want to put them through this again," Moraga said. "But I also know what type of career I am in."

Scott McNamara, a plain-spoken lawyer who trained in Pima County's public defender's office, keeps a busy caseload through court appointments and can choose the clients he actually likes. He liked Moraga enough to take his case and quickly gain approval, from an often reluctant County Attorney's Office, to fit him into the Drug Court, a sometimes heralded system built up by Judge Miller during her 4 1/2 years presiding over the Drug Court bench.

The charges against Moraga were significantly chopped to solicitation to unlawfully possess a dangerous drug and unlawful possession of drug paraphernalia.

Up to 240 people pass through Drug Court at any point. Those who are successful, like Moraga, have their court record wiped clean.

Miller, now one of eight judges assigned to the civil bench, said she could not speak specifically about Moraga.

Appointed to the Superior Court in 1985, Miller is a strident champion of the Drug Court and, by most courthouse accounts, was not happy about her reassignment.

Drug Court, with mandatory treatment, probation and specific conditions, helps to change lives gripped by addiction, she said.

"It is very important to get people into treatment when they are susceptible," and in able to be pushed to change.

Moraga said he got the message and that serving as a role model "is part of my recovery.

"Hopefully I'm a model."