The Big Chill

The Amphi School District Freezes Out Reform.

By Jim Nintzel

AMPHI SCHOOL BOARD member Nancy Young Wright has a reputation as a crusader.

The 38-year-old mother of two is well known for her environmental battles in Oro Valley and northwestern Pima County. A prominent leader in the fight to save Honey Bee Canyon, Young Wright decided to seek the Amphi seat when real estate broker Vicki Cox-Golder left the board to run for the Pima County Board of Supervisors last year.

Feature "I was drafted into this," Wright says. "I was trying to find someone else to do it with a group of parents. We went through 20 people. Then my daughter came home and said, 'There are 42 kids in my science class. The teacher said not to worry about homework because he wouldn't have time to grade it all.' "

She says that news pushed her into the race. Wright defeated two other challengers to win the seat, but she says trouble started before she was even sworn into office. Following her election last year, she was invited to Amphi for an orientation session.

During the day-long meeting, Wright met with different department heads to learn about their jobs. As the day wrapped up, she had a final meeting with Superintendent Robert Smith and board members Mike Bernal and Richard Scott.

"They gave me a little lecture at the end of the day," Wright remembers. "It was an attempt to put me in my place, is what it felt like. They said, 'Some board members in other districts cause so much trouble they have to be censored. You wouldn't want to see that here, would you?' "

Wright shrugged off the comments, but she discovered she would have little influence on the topics discussed at board meetings when she was told that only Bernal and Smith could place items on the meeting agendas.

Less than two months after she'd joined the board, on Valentine's Day, Bernal called Wright to tell her construction of the new high school could be imperiled by the presence of the endangered pygmy owl near the property.

When Wright asked if the board planned to discuss the pygmy owl controversy in an open meeting, Bernal informed her that he and board member Gary Woodard would handle the situation.

The pygmy owl problem led Wright to ask Amphi staffers how the land had been selected and why it hadn't been appraised or undergone an environmental survey before the purchase--questions which weren't welcomed.

"It seems like a counter-productive waste of the Superintendent's limited time, energy and resources to seek out and find explanations for matters in which he had little involvement," Bernal wrote in a letter to Wright.

"I would question your judgment that seeking such information could be construed as 'vexatious' and 'counter-productive,' " Wright wrote in her response to Bernal. " 'Counter-productive' to me is unilaterally directing an outside attorney to draft a memo that costs nearly $4,000 to protect the status quo of the board. 'Counter-productive' is repressing the public's right to know. 'Counter-productive' is utilizing resources to cover the behinds of those who don't want to discuss or be held accountable for their decisions."

THAT $4,000 MEMO Wright referenced in her letter came after Wright spoke with the district's technical director, who told her the district needed to hire a specialist to get Internet connections completed in the classrooms. The position had gone unfilled, he told her, because the district was offering only $36,000. Wright sent a memo to the rest of the board, suggesting they raise the salary.

The request led to a swift rebuke from board member Virginia Houston, who sent a letter to Bernal criticizing Wright for her actions. Bernal, in turn, requested a clarification from the board's attorney, Barry Corey, who wrote a seven-page letter outlining proper and improper conduct for board members.

"Policy says all of us are supposed to get together and hire outside attorneys for things," Wright says. "I was sent a letter that cost taxpayers $4,000 that was pretty much a regurgitation of our own policies and state statutes, threatening me and attempting to make me chill out."

While district officials declined to comment on status of the position, Wright says that today, six months later, the Internet job remains unfilled. Meanwhile, she notes, the district has been employing a consultant to do the work at a cost of $4,000 a month. A recent report from the technical director indicates he's resigned to hiring someone with less skills who can be trained.

"As soon as we train somebody, they're going to leave us," Wright predicts.

WHILE HER COLLEAGUES may be distressed by Wright's modus operandi, some parents are supporting her.

"I like Nancy," says Diana Boros, who has three children in Amphi schools. "I do feel that she has been stymied. She seems to be the only one who has a lot of questions and asks questions that we ask her to ask. She seems to be commonsense. I don't know her to be a pushover, to not be honest, to withhold information. I believe her to be a person of integrity."

Earlier this year, Boros helped organize Students First, a group of parents concerned with district policies.

Boros says the catalyst came when the board was handing out bonuses to the administration last summer. Smith received a $4,000 bonus, upsetting a number of Amphi parents, who point out that the administrative portion of Amphi's budget had been overrun by nearly 10 percent, while the other areas of the budget, from teacher salaries to classroom assistance, were being squeezed to make up the difference.

"It encourages you to take money away from funds for kids," gripes John Holden, father of two students in Amphi schools. "If they had taken that $4,000, they could have paid for a teacher's aide, at least part-time, in one of the computer labs. They could have gone out and bought quite a few boxes of crayons, which aren't available in the elementary school for kids in some of these schools."

Given that Smith earns $87,000 as a base salary, with an $8,200 expense account, a $6,400 car allowance, and a merit pay program worth up to $7,000, the additional bonus was "a real sore point,"says Holden.

District officials declined to comment on the bonus controversy.

Wright, who voted against awarding the bonus to Smith, says at the same time the Superintendent asked for his contract to be extended to the year 2000--even though the normal time to discuss the contract renewal was December. The board voted 4-1, with Wright dissenting, to approve the extension.

Just last Friday, December 5, Wright says she was informed the board was due to evaluate Smith again.

"We're supposed to evaluate him and I don't have jack in my board book," Wright complains. "I want to know what we're trying to do. In my opinion, we didn't have a good system last summer when we evaluated him. I didn't think it was adequate. We couldn't prove to anyone why we thought he deserved that money."

Wright says she spent close to 30 hours at the UA library and gave Bernal a notebook filled with different evaluation tools, but she never heard back from him on the subject.

"We've never given Smith any clear goals," Wright complains. "The board has never done the work to say, 'This is what our top priorities are. This is what we want Smith to accomplish.' "

Holden also complains about nepotism in the district. He points to the case of Chad Wilson, who was hired as a teacher in 1995, despite the fact that he had no teaching certificate and hadn't managed to maintain the minimum 3.0 grade-point-average required in his major. At the time, Chad Wilson was the son of Rick Wilson, the district's then-superintendent.

District officials told a reporter from The Arizona Daily Star the younger Wilson was accepted over 25 other applicants with better records because he received "rave reviews" from his principal--who happened to be Robert Smith, who succeeded Wilson as district superintendent in 1996.

Holden also notes that Hazel Houston, daughter of longtime board member Virginia Houston, was hired to head up the district's purchasing department, earning an annual salary of $41,150.

Boros is concerned with other policy areas, from classroom overcrowding to lack of supplies for school kids. She says there's a growing inequity between the southern and northern areas of the district, and that the board isn't listening to parents.

"Over the years, we have definitely lost our input," says Boros, "so we wanted to restore call to the audience, so the people we voted for understood that we are concerned about our children's education."

Amphi dropped its call-to-the-audience segment about a decade ago, although it continues to be a common feature of meetings in other local districts. The Students First group recently collected 500 signatures on a petition supporting the idea of re-instituting the segment.

"It's really the only time you can speak to all five board members at one time without violating the quorum," Boros says. "You should be able to speak to any issue you like, as long as it's not a personnel issue or slanderous, of course."

While Wright and Bernal support the call-to-the-audience proposal, the remaining three board members oppose the plan.

Holden says the controversy is just another example of how the board seems to "be afraid of the public."

Despite their criticism of the administration and board, both Holden and Boros say they think the teachers at Amphi do a great job, particularly given the large classes they have to teach.

But they're outraged at the board's treatment of Wright, who, they say, is the only board member who'll listen to their concerns.

"They have done everything to shut her down," complains Boros. "I'm disappointed they see her as an invasive person, as opposed to seeing her as a breath of fresh air."

Dirty Deeds

Amphi's Land Deals Create Legal Trouble For The District.

EVEN AS AMPHI struggles to build a new high school in prime pygmy owl habitat, the district faces a lawsuit over the land acquisition policy that led to the purchase of the property.

Former Pima County Supervisor David Yetman has sued Amphi, alleging that the contract between the district and real estate broker Bill Arnold created an illegal conflict of interest.

Under the arrangement between Arnold and the district, Arnold was not paid for his work by the district, but instead received his fees from the seller of the property. Arnold earned more than $150,000 for brokering the deals.

"Such an arrangement constitutes a conflict of interest as understood by any layman," says attorney Bill Risner, who filed the suit on Yetman's behalf.

Risner says "employee" has a very simple definition in Arizona law: " 'Employee' means all persons who are not public officers and who are employed on a...contract basis by...a political subdivision...for remuneration."

The suit names Arnold and his employer, Genesis Real Estate and Development, as well as the Amphi School District and school board members Mike Bernal and Virginia Houston, and former board member Vicki Cox-Golder. It seeks the return of all fees earned by Arnold, and the removal of Bernal and Houston from the school board.

In response to the suit, both Amphi and Arnold have argued that Arnold was not an employee of the district.

The contract between Arnold and the district first came to light in September 1996, when The Weekly uncovered the arrangement in a series of articles examining Arnold's work for Amphi.

Amphi officials have so far been unable to respond to a request from The Weekly to release copies of all correspondence between Arnold and district officials. But the lawsuit has brought to light more than 100 pages of records related to Arnold's Amphi land transactions which the district has withheld from The Weekly for more than a year, despite numerous public record requests. (A memo from Amphi Associate Superintendent John Rose to Superintendent Bob Smith, dated October 23, 1996, reads: "There are no official documents relating to land purchases since 1992 which Mr. Nintzel has not seen.")

IN 1992, AMPHI Associate Superintendent Katie Frey needed help in acquiring the Sunburst Apartments, a complex on Stone Avenue next to Amphi High.

Enter Bill Arnold, a well-known real estate broker and occasional political player. Arnold is a close political ally of former Amphi Board member Vicki Cox-Golder, a real estate agent who served on the district's board from 1988 to 1996, when she gave up her seat in an unsuccessful bid for a position on the Pima County Board of Supervisors. Arnold chaired Cox-Golder's campaign.

Although Frey has told The Weekly she couldn't remember who recommended Arnold for the job acquiring land for Amphi, she says Arnold was the only person she contacted about the position.

Arnold billed the district $27,000 for his work acquiring the apartment complex, but district officials say an open bid on the job was not required because it was considered an "emergency procurement."

But that was just the beginning of Arnold's lucrative work for Amphi.

IN 1993, THE Amphi School Board met behind closed doors in executive session to develop a new land acquisition policy. Although it appears no written policy was ever put forth, the district apparently decided to hire Arnold, who would secretly represent the district in the hope of getting a better deal for district taxpayers. The arrangement was never approved in an open school board meeting.

"The idea was that he could get the land cheaper than if people knew it was the school district that wanted to buy the parcel," says Risner. "That's sort of the way they sold it to the board. I think it's just sillier than hell. The thing is almost amusing."

Even Amphi Associate Superintendent Todd Jaeger, who came to work for the district earlier this year and helped develop the district's new land acquisition policy in the wake of The Weekly's investigation, is skeptical of the way Amphi did business.

"There's a lot of debate about, gee, is it best for a school district to buy through a secret escrow, or is it better to avoid that process and let everybody know what you're looking at and take whatever risk from that--that the price of the property is going to go up," Jaeger told The Weekly last spring. "I think it's generally better to have all the constituencies and all the shareholders, as they're called, involved from the start. You try to keep it as confidential as possible in terms of the negotiation process with the eventual seller, but I just don't know if those secret escrows are all they're cracked up to be."

Although Arnold brokered eight parcels for the district, most of the money went into three major purchases totaling about $3.6 million. Arnold earned about $130,000 to put together the deals.

Two of those major purchases came in the spring of 1994. Shortly after signing his first exclusive retainer agreement in October 1993, Arnold went to work acquiring two school sites.

Recently obtained memos suggest a loose negotiation process. According to one briefing from Arnold to Frey, Arnold casually jumped his price-per-acre by $8,000.

"Spoke with Olsen," Arnold tersely wrote. "Said $22K/acre wasn't acceptable. When I asked if 30K was in the ballpark he told me to make him an offer."

Arnold quickly settled on four potential sites. The board ultimately approved the purchase of two of the properties. Neither parcel was appraised before purchase, and both prices were at the high end of the real estate market (for comparisons, see "Dirt Not-So-Cheap," page 16).

When asked last year why no appraisal was done on the property, Arnold said: "I don't know. You'll have to ask Amphi."

Amphi Superintendent Robert Smith, in a letter to The Weekly last year, said district officials didn't think an appraisal was necessary.

"Based on the number of parcels that were examined, the real estate market in terms of consistency of land costs, and specific site requirements for school use, we felt that the prices paid for the land parcels were reasonable and appraisals were not required."

But memos recently obtained by The Weekly show Arnold had planned to have the land appraised. A March 9, 1994, letter from Arnold states: "Upon opening of escrow I will contact Baker Peterson Baker...for them to appraise both sites on behalf of the district."

In a return letter the following day, Frey thanks Arnold for arranging the appraisal.

Amphi officials didn't respond when asked why the appraisal was canceled.

One purchase, from a trust headed by former real estate broker Neil Kleinman, cost $815,000. Arnold's cut: $45,000. The district built Wilson Middle School on the property in 1996.

The second parcel has proved more troublesome. Purchased from the late Edgar and Irene Romo, the 73-acre site is in prime pygmy owl habitat, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. (See "Bird Land, page 16)

The parcel cost $1.78 million. Arnold's commission was about $53,000.

DURING THE SUMMER of 1996, Arnold brokered another million-dollar deal for Amphi.

The Newmont Mining building sits on eight acres on Desert Sky road. Amphi paid $1 million for the property, although an appraisal pegged its value at $910,000. Arnold earned $30,000 brokering the deal. Amphi Associate Superintendent John Rose has said the district swallowed the million-dollar price tag to avoid the expense of condemnation.

In the 15 months since the purchase, however, the district has yet to find a use for the property. According to a memo written by Frey last December, Amphi would have to pay an estimated $777,550 to renovate the building to provide additional office space.

Amphi staffers did not respond to a query asking why the district had purchased the property.

Although Amphi officials have said a number of buyers have shown an interest in the property, the district would have to get voter approval before it could be sold. At this point, Jaeger says, Amphi has no concrete plans for the building.

IN DECEMBER 1996, The Weekly learned the Amphi School District had yet another of Arnold's clandestine land deals pending: the purchase of approximately 39 acres on the corner of Moore and La Cañada roads. The property was due south of the La Cholla Airpark, a wealthy enclave built around a private airstrip. While FAA regulations restrict the construction of schools near airports, La Cholla's private status meant Amphi was not bound by federal rules.

The land belonged to a trust partially owned by Charles Townsdin, a real estate lawyer who had worked with Vicki Cox-Golder and her family for two decades. Townsdin had been the single largest contributor to Cox-Golder's Board of Supervisors campaign.

Under the deal Arnold had brokered, the district was prepared to pay $665,000 for the property, or about $17,000 an acre. The property had been appraised at $16,000. Arnold's commission was $23,275.

In a September 5, 1996, memo recently released by the district, Frey urged the board to reject the purchase. While she believed the site to be safe, she expressed concern over the political ramifications of building a school close to the airpark.

"I advise the district to cancel the purchase agreement for the land parcel at Moore Road and La Canada and to explore other sties that would be more suitable for a future middle school," Frey wrote.

Ignoring Frey's warnings, the board left the land in escrow until December, when The Weekly broke the news about the impending purchase.

When nearby residents and parents heard about the plan, they rapidly organized, packing an Amphi Board to angrily voice their complaints about the purchase. Board members caved in to public pressure, voted to withdraw from the purchase contract and announced it was time to form a new land acquisition policy.

A funny thing happened in August of this year, just eight months after the Amphi deal soured: The parcel was sold to Joseph Heater, who paid $11,972 an acre, for a total of approximately $468,000--or at least $200,000 less than Amphi was prepared to pay. Heater swung this ganga deal despite the fact he put down only 11 percent of the purchase price, while Amphi had been prepared to pay cash for the land.

DAVID YETMAN SAYS he decided to sue Arnold and Amphi over the land transactions after reviewing the record at Amphi.

"I think it's time for legal action, because the County Attorney isn't going to do it," says Yetman, an author who now works as assistant research social scientist at the UA Southwest Center. "The County Attorney should be doing it. This strikes me as a case the public should not have to bring to the court."

The Amphitheater School District is providing a legal defense for Bernal, Houston and Cox-Golder. Amphi officials did not respond when asked how much they anticipate the defense will cost.

Arnold didn't respond to questions regarding this story, but he recently faxed a poorly punctuated press release to media in which he put his own spin on the lawsuit, insinuating the entire affair is a product of our overly litigious country.

By Arnold's reckoning, Yetman's share of the costs associated with the land deals comes out to $42.89, a figure arrived at by using the value of Yetman's property in the Amphi district to figure his percentage of the $4.2 million spent to acquire properties under the contract with Genesis.

Or, as Arnold wrote:

"We have an amazing legal system in America" (sic) said Bill Arnold of Genesis. "Anyone can sue anybody for anything. Mr. Yetmans (sic) alleged 'adverse affect' (sic) equates to $42.89. At the same time, Yetman is forcing the taxpayers of the Amphitheater School District to spend thousands of dollars in legal bills and staff time in response to this suit. What kind of insanity is this?"

The release continues:

"It's a travesty that someone can inflict this kind of damage on a public body while claiming to be representing the pubic's (sic) interest all under the guise of being 'adversely affected." Arnold went on to ask (sic) "We are talking about less money than an average night out on the town--$42.89--Who is the truly injured party here?"

Risner says Arnold doesn't seem to understand why Yetman filed the suit.

"Dave's position is a principle position as a citizen who's concerned about conflicts of interest," Risner says. "Because he had a pecuniary loss, he's allowed to sue. He wasn't motivated by his personal loss."

Bird Land

The Amphi District's Million-Dollar High-School Development Plans Collide With Nine Little Owls.

THE AMPHITHEATER SCHOOL District is in for a fight with its plans to build a third high school in prime pygmy owl habitat.

Just how tough a fight won't be clear at least until December 31, the target date for completing a formal consultation process with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has grave concerns about the potential loss of habitat through construction of the school.

In a worse-case scenario, the federal agency will tell Amphi, which has spent about $3 million on land and designs for the new school, that it can't build on the property.

In a best-case scenario, the federal agency and the school district will find a way to mitigate the destruction of the owl habitat. But even if they manage to reach a plan that allows construction, the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, a local environmental group, has said it will file suit to stop construction of the school.

"If they move forward at the current location, we will sue," says Peter Galvin, a co-founder of the Southwest Center. "But we won't if they find another location that doesn't affect the pygmy owl. From our perspective, we don't see how they can say this project won't lead to the loss of one or more pygmy owls, because of the proximity of the school to the pygmy owls."

The resulting legal tangle could tie up the district's plans well into the future.

Since the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl problem erupted for Amphi earlier this year, district officials have downplayed the owl's presence.

In numerous public statements, Amphi officials have said the nearest owl has been sighted a mile-and-a-half from the school site--a claim contradicted by Fish and Wildlife spokesman Jeff Humphreys.

"There are owls located in this vicinity," says Humphreys. "They're across the street."

Earlier this year, Amphi hired Mary Darling, of Darling Environmental and Surveying, to prepare a biological assessment and evaluation. Although the district has failed as of press time to release any public records regarding Darling's consulting firm, documents obtained by The Weekly indicate it has been paid at least $6,720 for the survey.

However, Fish and Wildlife Service staffers have found numerous flaws in Darling's report. In an eight-page letter to the Army Corps of Engineers sent last month, Sam Spiller, a field supervisor with Fish and Wildlife, noted more than a dozen points where the federal agency disagreed with the assessment's conclusions, including:

The report failed to take into account the additional traffic resulting from the upgrading of roads near the school.

District plans included trails through areas which the report said would remain undisturbed.

Ironwood trees, which are "well-represented at the site (and) a key component of the habitat," were not included in the report's list of vegetation on the property.

In trying to downplay the threat to the owl, the report lumps it in with several other subspecies found in Latin America. But Spiller points out these birds have very little to do with the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl found in Pima County.

Spiller also criticized the report for ignoring several meetings among staffers from the school district, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Arizona Game and Fish Department, during which Amphi officials were told the pygmy owl was within 1,500 feet of the property's border.

"The Service met with personnel from Amphitheater School District on April 15, 1997," Spiller wrote. "At that meeting, Scott Richardson, Urban Wildlife Specialist with the AGFD, informed the School District that a pygmy owl had been detected on six separate occasions with 0.25 miles of the school site."

In his letter, Spiller notes the district was given this information during at least three other meetings.

Although Amphi officials did not comment on the status of their negotiations with federal officials, they've been flexing political muscle. On November 12, Amphi Board member Gary Woodard, Superintendent Robert Smith, and Associate Superintendent Todd Jaeger traveled to Washington, D.C., where they joined Arizona congressmen Jim Kolbe and John Shadegg in a meeting with the director of the Fish and Wildlife Service. Cost to district taxpayers: $4,362.

Fish and Wildlife officials were also unable to comment on the ongoing consultation, but Humphreys says developing a habitat conservation plan has been tricky.

"This is as complicated a consultation as we've had in Arizona history," Humphreys says. "The reason being the dire straits of this bird. There are only nine remaining in the state of Arizona. We don't have any assurance this population is connected or mixes with the Mexican population, so we have to treat it under the Endangered Species Act." 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