School's Out

A judge says the Tanque Verde School District violated the Open Meeting Law.

For the $170,000 it has paid its big-name law firm, including $43,000 to combat a parent-taxpayer coalition, the Tanque Verde Unified School District logically should be able to roll right past its opponents who are fighting the district's efforts to build a high school.

Not so.

Judge Deborah Bernini, of Pima County Superior Court, slammed the Tanque Verde district--or, more specifically, its governing board majority that days before the court ruling snubbed a peace offering from the Tanque Verde Coalition.

In a stunning rebuke to the Tanque Verde school board majority, led by President Dr. Sherrylyn Young, Bernini said the board repeatedly violated the state Open Meeting Law by hashing out site selection and other matters related to its first high school in closed sessions.

The ruling, issued last week, should put other school boards and other local governments on notice that while executive sessions are permitted under state law to discuss real estate acquisition or negotiations, as well as personnel and legal matters, action must be taken in public with adequate public notice.

The Tanque Verde board, split 3-2 on whether to move ahead with a high school on Snyder Road at the Catalina Highway, violated the Open Meeting Law on four occasions last year, Bernini ruled.

The board's attempted remedy--one used by Tucson's City Council, the Board of Supervisors, the Tucson Unified School District and other mistake-prone local governing bodies--was to ratify the actions in a more advertised session that "cures any errors prospectively," Bernini wrote.

"The court disagrees. Any legal action taken by a public body during a meeting held in violation of the Open Meeting Law is null and void" with some exceptions. The Tanque Verde board, Bernini added, "cannot avail itself of this statutory Band-Aid as its alleged ratification of the site selection" at a later meeting.

"The decisions rendered by the board were the direct result of discussions and debate regarding site selection held unlawfully in executive session and are therefore also null and void. To find otherwise would strip the Open Meeting Law of its very purpose," Bernini wrote.

The opposing Tanque Verde Coalition, which last week offered to drop its litigation, stop its political maneuvering and end a recall drive against Young, also won on its complaint that the Tanque Verde board could not use state School Facilities Board money to pay a portion of the costs of the targeted real estate.

The coalition's third strike against the board came when Bernini ruled that an advisory referendum on the high school did not include sufficient details about the site, costs and other matters.

The coalition has long contended that the Tanque Verde district did not show the true costs of opening a high school in 2004. Opponents have had a heavy-handed ally in TUSD, which is paid to educate most of the Tanque Verde students at Sabino and University high schools.

"We feel pretty good," Jason Aryeh said following the release of Bernini's ruling. "We're vindicated."

He and other critics of the high school plan and the district's financial strategies didn't make the settlement offer out of fear, Aryeh said.

"It wasn't as if we knew we were going to lose," he said.

It also is not likely that they thought they would have such a huge win.

The Tanque Verde Board, in a five-hour meeting that ran past 11 p.m. on May 8, voted to pay its burgeoning legal bills out of the district's Medicaid account rather than its $9.4 million operating and maintenance budget.

The district has 1,900 students. TUSD, by contrast, has 60,000. But TUSD is fighting to keep the Tanque Verde kids at Sabino, which took a hit when Vail opened its first full high school, Cienega.

From July 2001 through March, Tanque Verde spent nearly $170,000 for legal work by lawyers--at $164 and $168 and hour--at DeConcini McDonald Yetwin & Lacy, which has a lock on most legal work for TUSD, Sunnyside and other area school districts.

From October of last year through March, the district spent about $43,000 combating the Tanque Verde Coalition, according to records released in response to a Tucson Weekly request under the Arizona Public Records Law.

Bernini's ruling made that worse. Underscoring the coalition's victory, she awarded the group its attorneys fees.

It is not insignificant. Everyone at Tanque Verde agrees that money, because of the state's precarious financial condition and the composition of the district, is tight.

While there are expansive homes and estates in the Tanque Verde Valley, the tax base relies heavily on homeowners because of its limited commercial property. Taxes, which dropped in the last two years from $1,304 to $1,259 on a $250,000 home, will go up with bonds and expensive utility lines necessary for the high school.

A review of county records shows that of the 10 school districts in the metropolitan area, Tanque Verde ranks ninth in the total taxable value of its property, 10th in tax rates and eighth in tax levy--the amount that can be collected in property taxes.

Meanwhile, the drive against Young, who led all candidates three years ago by a huge margin, will continue as organizers attempt to collect 1,600 signatures from the district's 7,290 voters. A recall could coincide with a November bond election.

Bernini could be of broader value. A former Juvenile Court judge who once embarrassingly thrust herself onto television as a real life Judging Amy, Bernini could referee Tanque Verde board meetings that have degenerated into name calling, temper-baiting and the hurling after an early morning meeting May 16 of at least one "f-- off."

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