Sneak Attack

The Amphi School District Begins Its Part To Help Stamp Out Those Pesky Pygmy Owls, But A Federal Judge Intervenes.

By Emil Franzi

WHILE A HANDFUL of parents celebrated with a champagne breakfast, The Amphitheater School District launched a sneak attack last week on the controversial new high school site located in the heart of critical habitat for the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, Pima County's recently listed endangered species.

A federal judge brought work to a halt the next day.

Although district officials gave no public notice until plant-removal work began bright and early on Thursday, March 12, the supporters of the site--known for the yellow ribbons they donned in their campaign to construct the new high school on the property despite the potential damage to the pygmy owl--somehow got wind of the groundbreaking.

Currents Esther Underwood, leader of the yellow-ribbon crowd, claims she happened to be driving by and noticed that work had started. She quickly rounded up her troops, who came over to celebrate.

There are those who don't believe Underwood. They charge she was tipped off by Amphi staff, so that a crowd of supporters would be on hand if and when the media arrived. Melissa Franklin, Amphi's director of community relations, denies the charge.

But Franklin's denial may represent an attempt to put some formal distance between district officials and the "volunteer" mothers, perhaps due to charges by site opponents that the "yellow ribbon" organization is simply a front group set up by the current Amphi School Board majority.

Esther Underwood is the wife of Richard Underwood, owner of AAA Landscaping and Arid Plants. District critics, who maintain that AAA receives sub-contracting work from those doing business with the school district, claim that AAA trucks have been seen at CDO High School. Perhaps they're only picking up their kids, but Underwood refuses to talk to The Weekly, and the district doesn't keep records of sub-contractors.

Underwood also refused to share with us a broadside and cartoon of Nancy Young Wright, the Amphi School Board member who has consistently opposed the high-school site. Wright has also been a highly vocal critic of the School Board's numerous questionable practices. The cartoon was deemed too scurrilous by the Northwest Explorer to print in a paid advertisement.

The Amphi celebration crew on hand Thursday also included district lawyer Todd Jaeger and biologist Mary Darling, who was hired by Amphi to conduct a survey for pygmy owls.

District officials say the decision to begin clearing the land was made by Steve Hitchman, Amphi's bond project manager. Franklin maintains the school board had ordered staff to proceed with the site work last December, and that their permits to remove native plants were about to expire.

But opponents complain that renewal of those permits is a simple process; and, they say, district staff started clearing the site despite a public commitment by the Amphi Board to hold off construction until all legal obstacles had been removed.

When the media and members of environmental groups who are opposed to the project heard about the clearing operation, they headed for the parcel, where they found the operation in progress and the yellow-ribbon group on the land.

Citizens and district taxpayers who were not part of the unofficial support group were gruffly told they were trespassing by a pair of either clueless or poorly briefed off-duty deputy sheriffs in Amphi's employ.

Jaeger, Darling and Franklin chanted--and sometimes screeched--the official line: "There are no owls here." Darling went further, facing an assault complaint from one citizen whom she allegedly pushed while she threatened to have himarrested for trespassing. Darling allegedly jumped into another citizen's car and demanded he hand over a tape of pygmy owl sounds he was playing.

According to Franklin, the plants were being boxed on the first seven acres to be cleared for the student parking lot. The Amphi Board then hopes to contract the rest of the site clearance and excavation on March 24, and begin the process of soliciting bids for the jobs. Amphi officials have already requested permits from Pima County, urging county officials to finish their review in 11 days.

Work on the high-school site had been stalled because the federal Fish and Wildlife Service had objected to Amphi's plan to alter a wash on the property, saying the action could harm the pygmy owl, which had been sighted a quarter-mile from Amphi's property in 1996. In response, the Amphi Board recently began the process of acquiring additional land adjacent to the parcel so they could redesign the school to leave the wash untouched. Franklin says the redesign will satisfy the feds--and besides, there are no owls.

Asked why they didn't wait until they had finished acquiring the additional land needed for the revised site plan, Franklin replied that if the deal wasn't cut, they'd simply use the right of eminent domain and let a judge decide how much to pay for that additional land.

BUT WILL THE redesign really protect the owl? Amphi officials and northwest-side developers would like everyone to think pygmy owls live in a tree or cactus somewhere and wait for something edible to skitter by. They don't. The owls move around a lot, and they hunt along narrow washes with sufficient protective coverage for them to find prey that would otherwise go to higher-flying predators.

Considering what unregulated growth has done to most of our washes, that explains why these birds are endangered. We've destroyed their habitat, and the high school's 73 acres are a prime chunk of what's left. Building a 2,000-student school next door to the washes just helps finish them off. So it matters little if the owls aren't present on the property at any given moment--the issue is habitat.

March is the owl's breeding season, when it moves around the most. Franklin, when asked if the timing of the plant removal was just coincidental, didn't deny it. She merely chanted once more, "There are no owls here."

Her statement is biologically--and legally--irrelevant. But it's clear that when you post "no-trespassing" signs and hire armed guards to keep everybody but your own folks away, there will be no continuing independent investigation of the owl's presence or absence. And perhaps that explains Darling's alleged ballistic behavior when she heard the tape of pygmy owl sounds: We're all just supposed to take the Amphi School District's word for it.

That word hasn't been very good in the past on this or other matters. In 1996 the Arizona Press Club awarded the district its Brick Wall Award for blatant and repeated failure to comply with requests for public records.

THE RESPONSE TO the sneak attack was just about as swift as the courts allow. Friday afternoon the Defenders of Wildlife and the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity secured a temporary restraining order halting plant removal. U.S. District Court Judge Frank Zapata will hear arguments to extend the restraining order on Friday, March 20.

There will be a long legal brawl, and the Amphi School Board apparently is willing to spend unlimited tax dollars to justify its original decision.

That the district clearly needs a new high school is undisputed. But a lengthy legal battle will only stall construction if environmentalists are able to win injunction after injunction.

But the issue has grown bigger than the school or even the owl's survival on this site. The real issue is how long will the parents and taxpayers of the Amphi District tolerate an arrogant and corrupt school board majority demonstrably guilty of cronyism, nepotism, obfuscation, denial of public records access, and the promotion of repugnant behavior by "unofficial" support groups that borders on thuggery. That issue will be the central one in the November 1998 election, when the two prime movers on the Board--Mike Bernal and Gary Woodard--face re-election.

Their actions are not those of people whose cause is just. They exhibit the behavior of those who have things to hide. Forget test scores and class sizes and owl habitat. Children should not be educated by those who have committed this many wretched acts.

All Amphi parents, including those who favor the current high-school site, should look carefully at this behavior and that of the "parents" group leading the charge on behalf of those in power. The question they should ultimately ask is: Would you really want your kids playing with theirs? TW

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