Faking The Grade

Are Students Grist For The Diploma Mill At Sabino High?

By Chris Limberis

THE INK ON the dailies had barely smudged when Sabino High School Principal Susan Preimesberger raced to try to turn around an emerging story about a grade and graduation-credit scandal.

Preimesberger immediately went on the attack against the very people who are blowing the whistle on problems at Sabino, the sullied Foothills flagship of the Tucson Unified School District.

Currents In a May 6 letter to Sabino parents, Preimesberger blamed the whole controversy on "a group of disgruntled employees."

With no proof and no specifics, Preimesberger told the parents that the so-called "disgruntled group" has "targeted certain programs and people at Sabino High School for the benefit of denigrating the efforts of honest, law-abiding employees who work tirelessly with our students to ensure their success, and ultimately, the success of Sabino High School."

Preimesberger then asserted that the allegations of improprieties in grades and graduation credits, along with abuse of study-skills classes and independent study, were due solely to the discipline she handed down to Sabino employees.

Preimesberger's target is Lillian Martinez, an unassuming and dedicated employee of the Tucson Unified School District for 20 years and the registrar at Sabino since 1992. Martinez, the mother of two successful TUSD graduates, has been on sick leave since March 23. She notified Preimesberger of the irregularities one week before her leave began. Preimesberger notified Martinez that she would be suspended the day after Martinez revealed the discrepancies in grades and classes.

Martinez is hardly disgruntled. She is a whistleblower who reported her shock at some peculiar Sabino practices, including late grade and class changes that enabled failing students to graduate.

Further, the discipline looks more like retaliation because Martinez had previously filed a harassment complaint against a Sabino administrator. It is pending before the civil rights division of the state Attorney General's Office.

Preimesberger, who is paid $66,023 a year, may have missed on her offensive. Her attempts to trash Martinez did nothing to block the Department of Education's Laura Penny from seeking an investigation by the state Attorney General's Office.

The matter is now in the hands of Suzanne Dallimore, the tough assistant attorney general who heads an office that polices school districts. It was Dallimore and her assistants who busted the Scottsdale School District last year for bid-rigging, kickbacks and Open Meeting Law violations. Several years earlier, Dallimore was a leading figure in gaining the state's successful settlements against Coopers & Lybrand and the late George Leckie in the bid-rigging cases stemming from then-Gov. Fife Symington's botched cost-cutting initiative, Project Slim.

Penny, chief of policy and communications for the Department of Education, said the department wants to know if Sabino students were improperly allowed to take study-skills and special-education classes, and whether the practice of Sabino teacher Doug Holland to not require students to attend class was inappropiate.

"Clearly we're worried that children are graduating without the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed," Penny says. "And this can affect class standings. If students who are struggling with Cs and Bs then get As in one of these study-skills classes, that would be upsetting to the students who were ahead of them."

Money also is an issue, Penny says. Sabino, as with other schools, receives between $4,000 and $5,000 in funding from the state per student. But those students must attend at least four hours of school per day. Additionally, extra funding that Sabino received for special-education students may be in jeopardy because Holland, also an assistant coach for Sabino's vaunted football team, lacked necessary state endorsement for special education. Moreover, some of the students enrolled in a special-education course are not special-education students.

Preimesberger was so busy reacting one day last week that her boss, Larry Williams, the assistant superintendent for high schools, complained during a KUAT radio interview that he didn't know all the details of the grade and class issue because he had not been able to reach Preimesberger.

Williams also pleaded ignorance in Marissa Samuelson's breaking story in the Tucson Citizen, saying the first he heard of the allegations was from Samuelson.


Similar allegations were raised in February 1998 and in 1996, according to a memo Williams sent to Superintendent George F. Garcia on February 18, 1998. In fact, Williams sent a November 7, 1996 memo to then-Deputy Superintendent Monte Littell asserting that an investigation of allegations of improper grade changing for a Sabino athlete "concluded no TUSD Board policy had been violated, but that some adjustments and better communication was needed."

And TUSD Board Member Rosalie Lopez copied Williams with an April 15 memo she sent to Garcia about the Sabino allegations.

One of Preimesberger's defenses hit Penny in the gut.

"She said that their job is to graduate students," Penny says of Preimesberger's comment. "It was discouraging to me to hear the academic leader of Sabino say that education is incidental to graduation."

TUSD, meanwhile, further tried to bottle up the scandal by assembling a team to investigate the Sabino mess. Members include Nancy Woll, an equal opportunity specialist; Tommy Harper, director of high school curriculum and instruction; David Dawson, program specialist for exceptional education; and Greg Schang, a TUSD internal auditor.

TUSD would do better by allowing the attorney general or other independent agencies to investigate the Sabino issues for at least four reasons.

  • Harper is the one who could find no previous violation.

  • Woll was assigned to investigate Martinez's harassment complaint.

  • The "Garcia" problem. Although the Department of Education is headed by Lisa Graham Keegan, the Republican Superintendent of Public Instruction, the state Board of Education also is involved because it handles teacher certification. Appointed by the governor, the state Board of Education is headed by Mary Werner Garcia, the wife of TUSD superintendent George F. Garcia. Mary Garcia also is the superintendent of the Sunnyside School District.

  • Lillian Martinez, the Sabino registrar, is married to Henry Martinez, who reported improprieties in Sunnyside's food services last year. He has been on an extended, paid leave. The Attorney General's Office also is investigating that matter.

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