Schoolyard Scuffle

Costs are climbing for Tanque Verde's push to build a new high school.

Because of the effort to grow up with a high school of their own, Tanque Verde Unified School District students, parents and taxpayers find themselves in a swamp of increased taxes, bitter dissension, a recall election, mounting legal bills and debt to a once-bankrupt developer whose land is the object of desire for the district's ruling majority.

This is a miasma no longer confined to the normally tranquil Tanque Verde Valley and its old, but small--three school, 1,000-student--district. It is spreading to taxpayers throughout Pima County and the state via the 1998 law called Students FIRST, the mechanism that put the state in charge of school construction.

"The taxpayers are getting screwed by the people who are supposed to be looking out for them," said Bill Heuisler, an anti-tax crusader for three decades.

"All governments talk about being broke and having to raise taxes. That's because they are not watching what the hell they are doing. In Tanque Verde, nobody did due diligence," said Heuisler, who has examined Tanque Verde's attempt to erect its first high school for the conservative Pima Association of Taxpayers.

Students FIRST was to relieve school districts of direct and sole cost of school facilities while it made sure schools have standard facilities. No more sports palaces, for example, at Round Valley or elaborate labs in Paradise Valley while Altar Valley and Sunnyside languished with beat up portables and pock-marked athletic fields.

But Tanque Verde taxpayers have hardly escaped the financial pain of the new high school, still sought for a 50-acre parcel of residential land at the Catalina Highway and Snyder Road. They will feel the pinch with tax bills due that will begin arriving around Labor Day.

Despite steadily rising value of property within the district (a component to the increased levy and tax revenues), costs related to the high school will cause property taxes that pay for daily operations to jump by nearly 9 percent for homeowners and 13.6 percent for commercial and vacant property in Tanque Verde, according to tax rates to be ratified by the Pima County Board of Supervisors on Aug. 18. And that is to raise cash for costs related to rights of way for a high school that does not, and may never, exist.

Tanque Verde's governing board has been locked in a 3-2 split created by issues surrounding the high school that are now spreading to most other matters. In control are Dr. Sherrylyn Young, an obstetrician-gynecologist by training; Lisa South, a former Tanque Verde teacher who took a job in the Tucson Unified School District, chiefly to become eligible to hold her Tanque Verde board seat; and Doug Hughes, a seller of school books. Boxed into dissent are Craig Naas, a pilot, and Mike Brown, a retiree.

Young, whose previous political experience was a failed Democratic run for the Board of Supervisors in 1988, is the subject of a recall election on Nov. 4. She led the Tanque Verde ticket by a wide margin three years ago.

Despite getting an additional $55,000 for architecture fees, the Tanque Verde school system failed another test last week at the state School Facilities Board.

In the latest report card, the School Facilities Board told Tanque Verde officials that "no further action" will occur until disputes are resolved by the courts and when the district fully complies with court orders.

Opponents of the high school successfully challenged the site selection. They scored a major victory earlier this year when Judge Deborah Bernini, of Pima County Superior Court, ruled that the Tanque Verde board violated the state Open Meeting Law by choosing the Catalina-Snyder site behind closed doors.

"At this time, title to the Catalina & Snyder property is unclear," William Bell, executive director of the School Facilities Board, said in a letter to Tanque Verde Superintendent Denise Ryan. "The court has ruled that the (Tanque Verde) district does not hold valid title."

Bell also said that while the state board had no opinion on Bernini's ruling about the Open Meeting Law violation, the Tanque Verde board must show "evidence that a new site selection process has occurred."

And Bell said that there must be resolution of the issue of severance damages that Tanque Verde must pay Customs By Design Investments, LLC, which saw half of its land, zoned and platted for one home per 3.3 acres, condemned in a hostile acquisition by the Tanque Verde district.

After the state action, Superintendent Ryan told the daily press that Young's recall would have no effect on the high school. Even those not following every turn of this political fight quickly realized that would be akin to Arnold Schwarzenegger prevailing in the California gubernatorial recall only to be forced to obey all of Gov. Gray Davis's policies. Ryan did not return a call from The Weekly.

Meanwhile, Tanque Verde's legal bills related to the high school site have swelled past a quarter of a million dollars. More is coming because the Young-South-Hughes majority voted to appeal Bernini's ruling.

When Bernini invalidated the Catalina-Snyder site selection, Henry Borboa and James Warren, partners in the home-building Customs By Design, moved to get out of the deal they say they never wanted.

The machinations, while the clock ticks on their interest payments, has transformed Customs By Design from reluctant potential spouse to runaway bride.

Lawyers for Borboa and Warren are seeking a court order to be let out of the forced sale of their property to the Tanque Verde schools.

"They want out to be able to do what they do best: build homes," said Kenneth Allen, a lawyer for Borboa and Warren, the principal investor. "They have been caught in the middle of this brouhaha. Everyone has rights in this battle: the school district, the opposition. Everybody but the landowner."

A closer look at the Tanque Verde's land selection is a disturbing autopsy of a government real estate deal. The investment end of Customs By Design, incorporated in August 1999, bought 104 acres at Catalina and Snyder in January 2000 for $3.18 million, county property records show. A month later, Borboa and Warren incorporated the home-building company Customs By Design.

For Borboa, a 41-year-old Tucson native and Tucson High School graduate, Warren and Customs By Design created a comeback opportunity. He had operated Night Owl Electric but ran into money trouble that was complicated by divorce.

About six weeks after Customs By Design Investments acquired the 104 acres off the Catalina Highway, Borboa filed for bankruptcy in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Tucson. He filed under Chapter 13, which allows adjustment of debts while earning income from a regular job. Among his debts were property tax and state and federal income.

The Tanque Verde School District, seeking to overcome a previously botched high school site purchase that fell outside the district's boundaries, latched onto the Catalina-Snyder site owned by Customs By Design. The purchase price was put at $2.89 million.

As for the Catalina-Snyder property, Borboa said: "We're still having to pay interest. And we can't even sell lemonade there. "

Well away from the Tanque Verde Valley, Bill Heuisler is neither impressed nor sympathetic. Heuisler, who has narrowly lost races for city and county offices, also has contributed taxes so that the Tucson Unified School District could officially fight Tanque Verde's proposed high school. TUSD profits from the fees it charges Tanque Verde to accommodate its high school students including at Sabino and University.

"I don't care about Borboa. I don't care about the neighbors protesting the school," Heuisler said. "Taxpayers are the ones getting shafted."

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