Steller: TUSD should look in the mirror for deseg blame

2014-06-13T00:00:00Z 2014-06-13T14:54:31Z Steller: TUSD should look in the mirror for deseg blameTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Finally, someone came out and said it.

Under questioning by Tucson Unified School District board members Tuesday night, district attorney Julie Tolleson said this about the plaintiffs in the 40-year-old desegregation case:

“Clearly there are a number of people who benefit more from the perpetuation of this process than from the cessation of it. That’s just the mathematics. I can’t speak to what people’s motives are.”

Of course, by pointing this out, Tolleson was stating the case some board members wanted to hear: that the desegregation case goes on because the plaintiffs’ attorneys, as well as the special master appointed in the case, get their fees paid by TUSD. Therefore, they have a financial interest in dragging out the case.

She’s right to an extent, but in the end it’s an ironic point for a TUSD employee to make.

Since taking over as superintendent of TUSD last year, H.T. Sanchez has been ramping up his critiques of the other parties in the case. On Tuesday night, he and the board members were pointed.

“It’s as if there are two TUSD Governing Boards. One is the plaintiffs, the other is you,” he told the board. “And there are two superintendents: One is the special master, the other is me.”

One of Sanchez’s main critiques has been about money: how much the opposing lawyers want for fees, what they charge for, and whom they want to hire as experts.

The argument makes some sense. As Tolleson laid out for the board Tuesday night, the attorneys for the African-American and Latino plaintiffs are requesting payment by the district at rates between $425 and $550 per hour. That compares to the $265 per hour the district is paying its outside counsel, William Brammer.

TUSD is fighting a request to pay attorneys’ fees of $2.2 million to the plaintiffs’ lawyers, though the district has agreed to pay $500,000 of that.

Now, Special Master Willis Hawley, to whom U.S. District Judge David Bury has been deferring in almost every decision, has asked for his own lawyer, also paid for by TUSD. The rate: $475 per hour.

The idea that Hawley, who is supposed to be working as an arbiter and enforcer among the parties and their attorneys, now wants his own attorney annoys many at TUSD.

He’s “acting as an additional plaintiff,” board President Adelita Grijalva told me.

All of this is annoying, if not downright wrong in some cases. I think it’s good that TUSD is fighting the inflated fees the plaintiffs want the district to pay.

However, let’s not think they’re the only ones with a financial interest in the desegregation case going on. That would be naive.

By early 2010, when Bury dismissed the desegregation case only to have the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstate it, the district had already received about $1 billion in additional tax revenue it is able to collect because of the desegregation case.

That figure continues to mount by $64 million a year, because of the deseg case and TUSD taxpayers.

Sylvia Campoy, who has tracked the case closely for decades in support of the plaintiffs, did not miss the irony.

“The $2 million for our legal fees are a drop in the bucket,” she said.

Campoy called TUSD’s aggressive approach to desegregation under Sanchez “an attack on being monitored. They’re using the dollar bill as a reason to attack all of us.”

Sanchez knew TUSD was under a desegregation order when he took the superintendent’s job. He also should have known what was in the “unitary status plan” that TUSD and the plaintiffs agreed to as the final path out of the desegregation order.

So while it’s fair to quibble with attorneys’ fees and other costs, Sanchez and the board need to recognize that it’s the district’s fault they are still under a desegregation order, and the district itself is the main beneficiary of the “perpetuation of this process.”

When it rains, it Orrs

This is the story of Ethan and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good Very Bad Week.

First, Republican state Rep. Ethan Orr split from his longtime job as head of Linkages, a program that trains people with developmental disabilities in job skills. Orr says it was a business decision by him and the board, partly due to his busy schedule. Auto dealer Jim Click, who has supported Orr’s political career, also heads the Linkages board.

“I think it’s going to work better for me and the organization,” Orr told me Thursday.

Then, conservative Tucson Republicans Christine Bauserman and Frank Antenori listed Orr as a “legistraitor” — in other words, a Republican who has supported some of Gov. Jan Brewer’s more moderate initiatives — in a new effort to smoke out so-called RINOs, Republicans in Name Only.

They encouraged Republicans not to vote for anyone in Orr’s upcoming race in Legislative District 9, where he is running against two Democrats for two House seats.

Finally, Democrats swung a wrecking ball at his campaign Tuesday when they filed suit saying his petitions have so many invalid signatures that he should be thrown off the ballot. Orr says it’s not true and his campaign will be fine but added, “We were getting some momentum going, and it really disrupted my momentum.”

Beneficial pension problems

What’s hurting retired Dallas police officers and firefighters is helping Tucsonans who want open space on the west side.

On Thursday, the Dallas Police and Fire Pension System fired administrator Richard Tettamant, the Dallas Morning News reported. He was the architect of a wild real-estate buying spree that included the 2006 purchase of about 286 acres on Tucson’s west side, called Painted Hills, for $27 million.

Last year, the Morning News looked into the pension fund’s investment and found it had put an unorthodox 50 percent of its net assets into real estate, including ultraluxury homes in Hawaii and a high-end condo tower in Dallas. City officials tried to audit the fund but were rebuffed by administrators who refused to turn over some information on real estate deals.

Now, Pima County, which has long eyed the property on the east side of the Tucson Mountains as open space, may finally get its chance. As my colleagues Jamar Younger and Darren DaRonco reported Thursday, the county is now hoping to buy the land for $7.5 million, or almost $20 million less than the Dallas fund paid for it eight years ago. It won’t be the last loss from the Dallas fund’s property binge.

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

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