Steller: Sunnyside board created its own budget mess

2013-12-18T00:00:00Z Steller: Sunnyside board created its own budget messTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

You could blame Sunnyside school district voters for the painful budget cuts officials outlined at a forum Tuesday night.

After all, it was the voters who rejected the budget override the board put on last month’s ballot.

But step back, and you’ll see the responsibility sits mostly with the board’s three-member majority and their hard-to-explain decision in June to extend Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo’s contract. Those members said their decision was a reward for a job well done and a financially smart decision — but it also raised the question of whether nepotism is at play in the district, since two of the three board members who supported Isquierdo also have family members whom he hired.

To close the resulting budget gap, the district plans to close Los Ranchitos Elementary School and Chaparral Middle School, cut some jobs, reduce one elementary school specialist at each site, 10 campus monitors, and administrators and coordinators. Some teachers also will likely be laid off.

This could have been avoided. Sunnyside voters approved four consecutive budget overrides before Isquierdo came aboard in 2007. Since he arrived, they’ve rejected three consecutive overrides, in 2011, 2012, and now, in 2013.

Yet, when confronted early this year with controversy over a superintendent plainly distrusted by the voters, the board not only rejected calls to fire him (such as mine) and not only decided to let him stay on for the last year of his contract (scheduled to end June 30, 2014), but it opted to extend his contract two more years to 2016.

That decision, more than other factors, ensured that the board would be in the position it is today. Now they must make cuts that will inevitably harm the district’s students, and two members of the board majority who voted to extend Isquierdo’s contract are facing likely recall elections.

Why did the board put itself in that position?

Board President Louie Gonzales, one of the recall targets along with fellow member Bobby Garcia, argued that improved graduation rates show Isquierdo has been doing a good job, and that extending his contract saved the district $75,000. Under the terms of his new deal, Isquierdo got the two extra years but lost a $75,000 payment he has been receiving for selling a district-designed graduation program to other school districts.

“We could have waited till next May,” Gonzales acknowledged to me earlier this year. But the district’s critics, he said, “want to know where you stand.”

Where they stood is with a man who, while he reduced dropout rates, also created a layer of political protection for himself through hiring. Isquierdo, with the board’s approval, hired former Tucson City Council member Steve Leal, former South Tucson Police Chief Sixto Molina and Richard Fimbres Jr., the son of current City Council member Richard Fimbres Sr.

He also hired many family members of two members of the board who voted for his contract extension, Gonzales and Eva Carrillo Dong.

Gonzales’ family has three generations working at Sunnyside, including three of Gonzales’ kids and a recently hired granddaughter. Among the Gonzales relatives is Louie’s brother Tony, who retired from the district in 2006 but now lives rent-free in a mobile home at Elvira Elementary, a perk of working as a night-security officer there. He also has a day job at the school as a painter.

His jobs are endangered by the budget cuts in the district, Louie Gonzales told me.

Dong also has three children and one son-in-law working in the district. The most prominent, Kathy Dong, is president of the Sunnyside teachers’ union but no longer works as a teacher, a position that paid between $30,000 and $36,225 per year. In November, 2010, Isquierdo promoted her to “instructional technology integrator,” a $60,000-per-year job.

To her credit, Kathy Dong has fought Isquierdo at times, but she did not come out against him when it counted most, in the period leading up to his extension.

Neither of the two minority board members, Buck Crouch or Daniel Hernandez Jr., has family members working for the district, though Crouch’s daughter applied for a district job she did not get.

At a board meeting in October, some members defended the hiring of family members as legal and also defensible because it’s done through a consistent hiring system. They also said it gives the district a beneficial familial environment. But Hernandez and others said the board was being too easy on itself.

Gonzales, the board president, also blames Isquierdo’s critics for forcing the board to extend the superintendent’s contract — something they did not have the power to do. He also blames them for campaigning against the override when they were out collecting signatures on their recall petitions. The leader of the recall group, Richard Hernandez (no relation to Daniel), said petitioners took a neutral stand on the override.

“I’m glad more than ever we gave Isquierdo the extension because this override was doomed to fail,” Gonzales told me Tuesday afternoon. “I’m glad we have an experienced superintendent who can work through this problem.”

But this is illogical: Without the contract extension, Isquierdo would still be in the superintendent’s seat until the end of June, and the override might have passed. With the extension, it was doomed.

That’s because the district’s insiders may appreciate Isquierdo, but outsiders have shown for three consecutive years that they don’t. Why the board doesn’t get that message is hard to explain.

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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