Signs Of Trouble

Amphi Board incumbents Mike Bernal and Gary Woodard campaign on the taxpayer's dime.

By Jim Nintzel

AMPHITHEATER School District administrators have evidently concluded they are now responsible for enforcing the sign code in Tucson's city limits--at least when they believe the violator to be a challenger to incumbents Mike Bernal and Gary Woodard.

Earlier this week, UA Professor Emeritus Ken Smith, who is running against Bernal and Woodard on the November 3 election, got a call from Amphi Associate Superintendent Katie Frey, who told him she had yanked down five of his campaign signs after concluding they were violated the law.

"Katie Frey says that she received complaints that some of my signs were near schools and that it appeared that meant the school was endorsing my candidacy," says the 66-year-old Smith. "Is there anyone in the world who believes that?"

Currents Frey, who has contributed at least $100 to both Woodard and Bernal, gave the order to tear down five of Smith's signs, located near Keeling, Nash and Holaway elementary schools and Amphi Middle School. Amphi officials didn't return phone calls seeking comment on the incident.

"I drove through the southern portion of the district myself and found that the incumbents have lots more signs down there than I do," Smith says. "I didn't realize the reason was that they were taking all of mine down."

City officials say they have no intergovernmental agreement with Amphitheater which would allow the school district to enforce Tucson's sign code.

The Amphi administration's campaign watchdog role seems limited to the challenger's campaign. Frey didn't ring up the County Attorney last week, for example, when a campaign flyer supporting incumbents Bernal and Woodard was distributed at a Harelson Elementary carnival.

The brochure itself is a breathtaking amalgamation of campaign law violations and half-truths. The portraits included in the flyer were paid for through Amphi tax dollars, and, astonishingly, Bernal and Woodard actually list the Amphi Board's web page--built by Amphi staff with Amphi tax funds--as official campaign websites. Using tax dollars to campaign what we in the business call a "big no-no," yet Frey has not taken any action to assure Amphi voters that the district isn't endorsing the incumbents.

But then, it seems Woodard and Bernal are popular in the district; the most recent campaign finance reports show that at least two-thirds of their contributions have come from former or current Amphi employees or Board members--primarily administrators whose promotions and raises depend on Board approval. Through the end of September, Woodard had raised a total of $1,601; Bernal had raised $1,476. Smith, meanwhile, has raised $2,234.

The brochure doesn't just violate campaign finance law; it also spins the truth like a top. Both Bernal and Woodard claim to be supporters of "Open Communication: Call to the Audience provides public input on all agenda items before votes are taken." Last month, however, both men voted to "streamline" Amphi policy to eliminate a controversial open Call-to-the-Audience segment at the beginning of the Board meeting that would have allowed parents a forum to talk about issues that weren't on the agenda--like, for example, the blatant misuse of district funds for political purposes.

Woodard and Bernal stress their fiscal responsibility, boasting that Amphi's administrative costs are the second-lowest among the six major Tucson-area school districts. But the administration exceeded its budget by almost 10 percent in the '95-'96 fiscal year and nearly 9 percent the following year. (The difference was made up by cutting back on instruction and instructional-support budgets.). The district has won a national award for "accounting excellence," but administrators nominated themselves for the honor.

Bernal and Woodard have brazenly used their incumbency to campaign for months, visiting PTO meeting at different schools to explain the brilliance of spending $2 million to defend the district's decision to build a new high school on the edge of critical habitat for the endangered pygmy owl. A handful of schools had the courage to suggest the Board send someone who isn't up for re-election; they're still waiting for someone on the Board to get back to them on that request.

And before election day, Amphi taxpayers can look forward to receiving Amphi School Views, a tabloid newspaper that's mailed to every household in the district. Two years ago, the cost of the mailer was $8,500. You don't have to be Nostradamus to figure out the newspaper will be filled with poorly staged photos of Bernal and Woodard holding awards, shaking hands, and beaming compassionately at the children under their charge.

Four years ago, when Bernal was seeking his first term on the Amphi Board, he had a lengthy interview in School Views. "The best we can hope for," he said then, "is that every aspect of the school system, every employee set a positive standards to live by and model those standards on an on-going basis. This modeling of moral and ethical standards should begin with the school board."

Despite those high moral and ethical standards, nobody at the district offered Ken Smith any space in this year's edition of School Views.

"I think it's absolutely, unbelievably appalling," Smith says. "I can't believe the arrogance of people abusing their power in this kind of way." TW

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