A Taxing Affair

The TUSD Governing Board Bumbles Through Another Big Budget.

By Chris Limberis

TAXPAYERS WILL spend $330.9 million to operate the Tucson Unified School District this year, an increase of nearly 5 percent.

But don't expect the increase to go any further than the rest of the bill goes toward educating the district's 63,000 students.

No, the TUSD Governing Board has other things to worry about:

  • Big Brother cameras, for one. Cameras that were supposed to monitor buildings and equipment are now helping TUSD brass keep an eye on employees.

  • Subsidy for a bus system that TUSD uses not only to cart students to and from school, but also to compete with private transportation companies.

The TUSD board, which adopted the 1998-99 budget July 7 on a 3-2 vote, pleaded ignorance on these two gems as well as a number of other components of the big, expensive business it runs.

Currents Given the board's performance, it's unlikely members will turn the cameras on themselves and hook up with the two local cable systems so the public can watch their deliberations. The TUSD Board has less courage than even the City Council and the Pima County Board of Supervisors, whose meetings are televised live and shown on tape delay.

The budget vote came three hours into the public session and after the obdurate board members got a thorough clock-cleaning from Tucson High parents, supporters and staff as well as supporters of Santa Rita High, all of whom are furious with the meddling that led to transfers of effective and popular administrators in June.

This board may want to keep the cameras out so the viewing public will be spared the pain of watching longtime board members who apparently don't know anything about tax rates and how they are calculated, or the fundamental differences between motions, amendments and substitute motions.

Though ahead of the keep-'em-in-the-dark Amphitheater School District Board, TUSD has a call-to-the-audience that is limited to 45 minutes. (City Council has an hour limit and the Board of Supervisors has no overall limit). But the list is nearly always stale because most people don't get to speak during the meeting they want. Their names are then held over to the next meeting, when an issue has long been decided. It's a nifty way, perfected by board President Joel T. Ireland, to stifle dissent.

The result last week was that Mexican-American students and leaders were not able to address the board on the long-delayed Hispanic Studies Program.

One of the self-styled leaders, Miguel Ortega, used his time during the budget hearing to speak about Hispanic studies. But he didn't know whether to be a radical (calling for a "brown flu" that would "shut down" TUSD) or a boot-licker ("We want to be mature.") His performance was pathetic compared with his dynamic, passionate address to the City Council three years ago, one that sparked unprecedented and immediate action by the city to accommodate a protest march,

Board Member Brenda Even and her on-board follower, Gloria Copeland, voted against the budget. Both are well behind in their election races: Even for the Board of Supervisors seat her late husband John held for four months last year; and Copeland for a second term on the TUSD Board. And both are trying to restyle themselves as fiscal conservatives. They picked a handy target--the district's fat and misused desegregation budget that was jacked up by $4 million to $42 million.

Still, both are late. They've previously supported this budget, and neither made any positive motion to reduce spending. They simply dissented.

They were put in the box by TUSD Board candidate Rosalie Lopez, who repeated her two-year-old call for a full audit of desegregation spending and for a cut in the fund.

A group led by Lopez emerged with a major victory. The board unanimously approved creation of an Hispanic Studies Program that will start with an annual budget of $210,800. The board also allocated $100,000 for Asian-American studies. Those two programs now join the district's well-established African-American and Native-American studies programs.

But the wanna-be fiscal conservatives, Even and Copeland, voted against actually reducing the overall tax burden for homeowners. That's because the 18-cent tax increase was applied to the primary levy, used to fund daily operations, while the secondary rate, used to retire voter-approved debt, was cut by 13.6 cents per $100 of assessed valuation.

The decrease in the TUSD homeowner's bill is not due to any diligence by the board or its staff. Rather it's a bit of a gift from the state. School primary taxes are cut automatically 35 percent, with that amount coming from all state taxpayers. The net result is that TUSD property taxes will drop about $11 on a $100,000 home.

Mary Belle McCorkle, it should be said, rose to the occasion with persistence and patience in getting the budget, with the ethnic studies programs, adopted. Now midway through her second term, McCorkle peeled Ireland away from his cozy majority with Even and Copeland and dragged along the shaky, incapable James N. Christ. TW

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