Steller: Sunnyside leaders use positions to keep power

2014-04-15T00:00:00Z 2014-04-16T10:12:17Z Steller: Sunnyside leaders use positions to keep powerTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Facing a recall election, Sunnyside Governing Board members Louie Gonzales and Robert Garcia held a fundraiser last month at a 5,000-square-foot Catalina Foothills home.

Not that unusual, perhaps, except that it was the home of the district’s superintendent, Manuel Isquierdo.

As the date approaches for ballots to be mailed out, the board majority and administration are pulling the levers within their reach to try to keep the current power structure in place in the Sunnyside Unified School District. So it’s no wonder that not only did Isquierdo hold the fundraiser at his house, but district spokeswoman Mary Veres sent text messages to a number of Sunnyside administrators, “inviting” them to the fundraiser.

Just a gentle reminder on private time, of course. No pressure intended!

The Sunnyside board has been deeply split since early last year, when Isquierdo was offered a superintendent’s job in San Antonio, then had the offer rescinded after his personal financial struggles were revealed in San Antonio and Tucson news reports. Isquierdo had just a year on his contract, and some wanted him fired right then, but for hard-to-understand reasons, Gonzales, Garcia and fellow board member Eva Dong voted in June to extend his contract, which led to the recall campaign against Gonzales and Garcia.

A key fact to remember in this political dynamic is that Isquierdo’s job depends on Gonzales and Garcia winning, because two other board members, Buck Crouch and Daniel Hernandez, are dead-set against him. So one more vote topples him. And with last year’s fiasco in San Antonio, plus a new personal bankruptcy filing by Isquierdo on March 10, his job prospects after Sunnyside might not be so hot.

The recent machinations by that three-member board majority and Isquierdo began in January after the recall election was made official. Late that month, the board voted 3-2 to hold the recall election at a traditional polling place, not by mail. They made the absurd argument, through their hired attorney, John Richardson, that holding an election on a workday at a single polling place would increase turnout.

Since data from past elections show otherwise — Sunnyside voters preferred mail-in ballots in the last three elections — Pima County Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda Arzoumanian, whose office oversees the elections, ordered that a mail-in election be held.

“The idea that changing the conduct of the election to mail ballot election would create a burden on the voters who ‘over the years have cast ballots at polling places’ is not supported by the evidence of the most recent elections within Sunnyside,” Arzoumanian said in a letter to Richardson. “It is my belief that providing for a mail ballot election for the May 20, 2014, Special Recall Election in Sunnyside will only serve to maximize the voter turnout.”

Ballots are scheduled to be mailed out on April 24 and can be mailed back or dropped off at three locations by May 20.

When Isquierdo decided to hold the fundraiser at his home, he coordinated with spokeswoman Veres, according to emails reviewed by my colleague, Star reporter Veronica Cruz. On March 11, Veres forwarded an email to herself of a flier for the fundraiser that she later sent out to an unknown number of principals and other administrators in the district by text message for the March 14 fundraiser.

She had previously sent the email containing the flier to Isquierdo; Isquierdo’s wife, Edith Macklin; and Louie Gonzales. Veres, who is on vacation and unable to comment this week, told my colleague by email last week that anything she did was on her own private time and did not involve district resources, because neither her phone nor that of the administrators who received the text message belongs to the district.

“The party in question was a private event, and any communications I may have been involved with were not done on company time or with company resources,” she wrote.

Isquierdo told me, through district Transportation Director Carlos Valdez, the same thing: “That was done within his (Isquierdo’s) own time. He was legally within his rights to do that.”

But, of course, it’s not a question of one’s legal rights but how one uses the power at hand. The use of Isquierdo’s house is one thing — unusual for a superintendent, but not so unusual when you consider that the opponents of Gonzales and Garcia have no intention of keeping him on if they’re elected and he would therefore have no relationships with them to repair. But texting the administrators’ cellphones is a form of arm-twisting that could not have gone unnoticed by the recipients.

I asked Vicki Balentine, the former superintendent of the Amphitheater Public Schools district, about the text messages.

“It’s not anything I would do,” said Balentine, who is a professor of practice in the University of Arizona College of Education’s educational leadership program. “It would not be unethical, but there’s certainly an implicit pressure that’s very clear.”

Finally, Veres was put to use April 2 sending out an email to all district employees — a memo from Isquierdo clearing himself and the district of any allegations of corruption, based on inquiries made by district attorneys.

The memo, which will also be sent to parents, begins: “Perhaps the greatest impact of the March 25 Governing Board meeting was a vindication of the continued criticisms and defamation of our District by a handful of critics who throw the ‘Corrupt’ word around with bravado and indifference. The smearing of our District’s image and our integrity as employees has finally been put to rest as reports from the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, Arizona Auditor General’s Office, Arizona Department of Education (ADE) and Pima County Attorney’s Office have proven there are no corruption concerns for the Sunnyside Unified School District, nor has there been.”

This is an old Isquierdo tactic — trying to deflect the criticism of him and the board majority onto all the district’s employees, thereby bringing them onto his side. It’s also coming from the superintendent who concluded that hiring relatives is just fine, not nepotism, as long as it isn’t your spouse or child.

The fact is we’ll only really know about any possible corruption during Isquierdo’s seven-year tenure if at least one of the board members is recalled and a new board majority takes control, letting us all take a fresh look at the district’s books, under its rugs and into its closets.

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

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