Travelin' Man

This Tohono O'odham Judge And School Board Memeber Lives A Long Way From The Rez.

By Chris Limberis

MALCOLM ARTHUR Escalante is a short, soft-spoken man with long silver and black hair and a delicate manner. At 49, he has risen to be the chief judge of the Tohono O'odham Nation Judiciary in Sells, an hour west of Tucson.

He's well acquainted with the commute, along a dangerous state highway that's as tricky as Tohono O'odham politics.

Escalante is in the final year of a four-year term on the Indian Oasis School Board. It's not a placid one. A big and active group of parents wants Escalante and his four school board colleagues out. The Parents Community Concern Group kicked off their recall effort April 1. They have until July 28 to get 357 signatures to force a recall election.

Currents They shouldn't have to wait or go through the expense to remove Escalante, who has been living with his family in a unit of the Mohave Place Apartments, 319 E. Mohave Road in Tucson. His three children attend Amphitheater Schools.

Escalante has little to say to The Weekly. In a recent interview, he acknowledged living outside of the Indian Oasis School District he was elected in 1994 to represent. Beyond that, he prefered to act dumb: He said he couldn't remember when he moved out of Sells and to Tucson.

The recall people know that it was more than a year ago. Other officials in Sells know that Escalante is flouting the law. Ambrose Encinas, chairman of the judiciary committee of the Tohono O'odham Legislative Council, has not been moved to do anything. But he also commutes. And he shared the ride with Escalante for a long time.

Encinas has not returned repeated calls from The Weekly.

Escalante, oddly, directed questions about his residency to the recall group.

"Have you talked to that group about that issue?" he asked. "You should talk to them. I have not talked to them about this issue."

Recall organizers and supporters have a laundry list of reasons they say voters should oust the entire school board. But Escalante's residency, or lack thereof, is an issue, said Kateri Carvajal, chairwoman of the Parents Community Concern Group.

"It's not right for him to be living in Tucson and still be on the board here," Carvajal said.

In their formal public statement, the recall group says "the failure of board members to educate themselves on their fiduciary and administrative responsibilities typifies their inability to provide a quality education for our children."

AMONG THE KEY complaints from parents and members of the school district is that the school board is autocratic. Board members meddle, make unpopular personnel decisions and rarely seek or listen to input from parents and those who pay the bills.

For example, a new year-round schedule, implemented without parent input, is causing great concern among parents who'll be forced to put their kids on buses without air-conditioning for long rides. The new schedule also will cut into hopes and plans Tohono O'odham kids had for camps--athletic and others, Carvajal said.

The recall statement further derides Escalante and his colleagues:

"To conduct educational business under substandard and unethical practices conveys the message to the general public and members of the Nation, that our children's health, safety and educational needs are of low priority and is certainly not in their best interest."

Escalante, as a school board member and chief judge, is in a unique and powerful position to determine "best interest." It's a type of conflict recognized by the Arizona Rules of Judicial Conduct. Judges in Arizona are not allowed to run for school boards. But the Tohono O'odham judiciary simply picks and chooses which of those judicial conduct rules to follow.

That leaves Escalante with power and authority over all O'odham youth. When he ordered a Babaquivari High School student locked up for a crime, he also refused to allow the boy any access to an education--any form of schooling--for a year. In contrast, education continues, indeed it's an integral component to rehabilitation--at Pima County's Juvenile Detention Facility, which is by no means some leading-edge liberal experiment.

When he registered to vote in 1984, Escalante listed his address as 0 W. Sells No. 20. He has not changed the registration to 319 E. Mohave in Tucson.

Escalante said he doesn't know when he'll return to live in Sells or the Indian Oasis School District.

Mary Garcia, a member of the recall group, said Escalante should be ousted based on residency.

In 1991, a candidate for the Maricopa County Community College board moved out of his district and was ruled ineligible. His wife and mother-in-law testified the candidate only occasionally spent the night at the home in the district.

According to state law, "every person elected or appointed to any elective office of trust or profit under the authority of the state, or any political division or any municipality thereof, shall be a qualified elector (properly registered voter) of the political division or municipality in which such person shall be elected."

An opinion from the Arizona Attorney General's Office states that a school district board member is a "public officer," under state law, and his or her office shall be deemed vacant at the time he ceases to be a resident of the school district."

Another opinion, given in 1979 for the Tanque Verde School District east of Tucson, said a school board member could retain his seat even though he temporarily moved out of the district while his house in the district was being built.

But Escalante, who has given no explanation for his move 60 miles away, has no apparent similar hardship.

He's renting out his Sells house.

Escalante also is subject to removal as judge based on his school board problems. Under Tohono O'odham law a judge maybe removed for "misconduct reflecting on the dignity and integrity of the government." TW

 Page Back  Last Issue  Current Week  Next Week  Page Forward

Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Books | Cinema | Back Page | Archives

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth