Steller: Dong abused power with vote on Sunnyside buyout

2014-06-04T00:00:00Z 2014-10-16T10:30:15Z Steller: Dong abused power with vote on Sunnyside buyoutTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

What a disgusting end to a sad chapter.

Eva Carrillo Dong, the president of the Sunnyside Governing Board, called a special meeting Monday night to consider ending the contract of the district’s controversial superintendent, Manuel Isquierdo.

I view that alone as an abuse of her power as board president.

Dong called the meeting for that night because it was the last opportunity before two new board members took office Tuesday, replacing her allies, the recalled incumbents Louie Gonzales and Bobby Garcia. She said she was worried that the new board would buy out Isquierdo and pay him in full, so she wanted the old board to consider other alternatives Isquierdo was offering.

For the old guard, the meeting amounted to one last tug on the levers of power.

They ended up agreeing to pay Isquierdo $499,500, rather than the $526,868 “out-the-door” price that Sunnyside finance chief Hector Encinas had estimated May 16. That’s a difference of $27,368.

Even if the new board really planned to pay the maximum to get rid of Isquierdo — a dubious assertion, since everyone I spoke to wanted to pay him the smallest amount possible — it should have been up to them to decide. That’s what the voters elected them to do.

In the recall election that ended May 20, incumbents Garcia and Gonzales received just 22 and 25 percent of the vote, respectively. Beki Quintero and Eric Giffin were sworn in to replace them Tuesday night and should have had a say in how the district disentangled itself from Isquierdo.

But Dong, who is first vice-chair of the Pima County Democratic Party, said, “We were hearing the new board was going to give him a whole two-year buyout.”

Her solution: Call in the old board members to hear Isquierdo’s alternatives, which included him spending his last two years selling the district’s Digital Advantage program, for which, Dong said, there are six customers in the offing.

“I thought I would have a better chance with last night’s group than I would have with tonight’s group,” she said before the Tuesday night meeting.

Monday’s special meeting began at 4:30 p.m. and almost immediately the board retreated behind closed doors. As the hours ticked away — 1, 2, 3, 4 and incredibly 5, 6, 7 hours — the mood of the three dozen or so attendees at the Sunnyside school district became strangely upbeat.

They were almost all opponents of Isquierdo and the board majority that supported him, and they could see the end was near, no matter how long Dong, Garcia and Gonzales dragged things out. Remarkably, their laughter increased as the night went on — one-time board member Ignacio Gomez even brought in pizzas. They started singing the stadium cheer “Nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-ey-ey, goodbye.”

But as their moods lightened, I got angrier.

The recall campaign centered squarely on the unnecessary decision by the majority of Gonzales, Garcia and Dong to extend Isquierdo’s contract last June, moving the endpoint of his contract from June 30, 2014, to June 30, 2016. The contract they approved required the board to buy him out even if he was fired “for cause,” meaning even if he did something wrong. That left the board little wiggle room.

In the final vote, usual board minority member Buck Crouch joined Garcia and Gonzales in voting to approve the buyout. Daniel Hernandez Jr., who has been Crouch’s ally on the board, voted no, as did Dong.

It’s probably no coincidence that Hernandez and Dong are the two board members up for re-election this year. It will be a lot easier to explain voting against the buyout than it would be to justify voting for it.

In an explanation of her vote at 11:30 Monday night — made especially tortuous by the seven hours of waiting that had preceded it — Dong said she couldn’t support the big payout when Isquierdo had offered other alternatives.

But Crouch said anything other than a clean break was unacceptable to him.

“Those alternatives would have kept him in the district and around,” he said. “We need him out.”

I agree with Crouch’s feeling that the district would have been ill-served to have Isquierdo hanging around. After all, if there really are six customers waiting to buy the district’s laptop-computer program, surely someone else can complete the deals. But I don’t think Crouch should have voted to approve any deal.

None of them should have. That was the new board’s business.

Dong may pay a political price this year for not recognizing that.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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