It provokes complicated feelings when a school district takes out an ad in your own newspaper to try to counter your own reporting.
Should I be unhappy the Star ran information from TUSD attempting to contradict my column last Friday? Or happy that my reporting provoked such a response? Or unhappy that the school district spent public money on such an ad? Or happy that the money went to my employer?
Confusing. Still, the ad in Thursday’s Star was just the latest twist in what is turning into a remarkable race for TUSD board.
Last Friday’s column argued that Tucson Unified School District had used Prop. 301 sales-tax money intended for teachers to balance its budget. It was bolstered by comments from the district’s chief financial officer, Karla Soto, at the Sept. 27 board meeting and an interview with her.
In the interview, Soto — joined by Renee Weatherless, a former Star employee who is now director of financial services at TUSD — explained they had discovered that unwise accounting of the performance-pay money had occurred as late as the 2014-2015 school year. But, they said, they have been taking care of the problem of accumulating performance-pay money by increasing payouts to teachers in a sustainable way.
The ad, which cost the district $1,614, seems to focus on whose administration is responsible — specifying that it was not current Superintendent H.T. Sanchez and his staff.
“Under Dr. Sanchez,” the ad said, “no 301 funds have been used to balance the district’s budget.”
It quotes Sanchez saying, “Questionable practices related to the management of 301 monies did not begin on my watch, but my administration has ended them.”
The effort seems to be to place blame for the accumulation of performance-pay money intended for teachers on the previous administration. But Sanchez was hired in June 2013, three months after the district had 10 special compliance audits concluded, clearing up many pre-existing financial issues.
Then-deputy superintendent for operations Yousef Awwad, the man hailed as a savior then but being blamed now, oversaw finances until leaving for Portland, Oregon, in late 2014. It wasn’t until January 2015 that Soto really took over the district’s finances.
In any case, the district’s comprehensive annual financial review for the 2014-2015 school year shows that the district used $12 million of Prop. 301 money for other district purposes. That doesn’t mean the money disappeared, just that it was used to shore up other maintenance and operations expenses.
I didn’t figure this out myself. It was pointed out to me by a certified public accountant, Jimmy Lovelace, who is spearheading a campaign against two board incumbents. Discard his insight if you want, but he also noted that the Prop. 301 money used by the district this way has increased year after year, from $6 million in 2012-2013 to $10 million in 2013-2014.
Maybe rather than calling it “balancing the budget” with 301 money, you’d prefer to call it keeping a positive balance in the district’s maintenance and operations budget. Fine by me.
Most important, the district has continued to have a growing balance in the performance-pay category of Prop. 301 money up to now. What was a $6 million balance when John Pedicone left as superintendent in mid-2013 has become about a $20 million balance today.
While keeping a small balance is sensible, most of that money should have been paid out to TUSD teachers, not used to maintain a cash balance in the district’s accounts or saved to create sustainable payouts for future teachers.
In 2015-2016, TUSD paid out about $5 million of this performance-pay money despite having a $12.7 million surplus from the previous year and bringing in more millions from the state that year.
I understand that the district wants to pay the money out at a sustainable rate until the tax sunsets at the end of 2020. It makes some sense to try to provide a dependable $3,000-per-year payout from now on. But it’s the teachers in the district when the money comes in that really deserve it.
What TUSD has been doing up till now I consider to be hoarding money that rightfully belongs to current-year teachers and, at least through the 2014-2015 school year, using it to ensure the district’s maintenance and operations budget remains positive.
The current administration argues that they’re solving the problem by increasing payouts sustainably, but the problem occurred and grew under their watch.
For weeks, supporters of TUSD board incumbents Cam Juarez and Kristel Foster have puzzled over why an unprecedented independent-expenditure campaign formed this year.
Their conclusion: It’s a business move. The founders of TUSD Kids First want to push the district to close more schools and sell off more properties that business interests — perhaps co-chair Kathy Campbell’s own homebuilding business — can purchase and develop.
As evidence,Juarez and Foster supporters point to the fact that Campbell’s business bid in 2011 on properties TUSD had offloaded but the district picked other winners.
At Tuesday night’s candidate forum, Foster accused the group of trying to turn the board into a “business board.”
On Thursday, she told me, “I’m concerned that a homebuilder who has already considered buying TUSD property has put in so much money.”
She noted how much money the effort has raised, adding, “If there’s $40,000 being invested into changing this board, that has to be an investment in something.”
I met with Jimmy Lovelace and Campbell, the co-chairs of the group, Thursday morning, and of course they explained their motives quite differently. Campbell is a TUSD parent who has at times been upset with the way the district handled discipline of a student who bullied her daughter, she said.
The “restorative circle” approach used by the school did not work, she said.
But, she added, “We kept both of our kids in TUSD. We refused to say, ‘We give up.’ ”
Lovelace, a CPA, does not live in the district but has served on its internal audit committee and helped campaigns for bond elections and budget overrides on behalf of the district. He was ousted from the audit committee when the board decided to impose a residency requirement, meaning he could not serve because he lives outside the district’s boundaries.
“They didn’t like the questions I was asking,” he said.
He says he’s simply motivated by wanting to improve the board, which he considers dysfunctional, and thereby improve the district.
Radiation in Tucson!!!
On Thursday, Sept. 29, host Sean Hannity was pondering terrorist catastrophe when he casually said this on his nationally broadcast radio show:
“A friend of mine in law enforcement told me that there were some type of radiation detection going on in Tucson, Arizona, in the last number of days. It’s somebody that I trust and somebody I believe.”
He went on to describe radiation detectors used in New York, then said, “How is it all of a sudden going off in Tucson? That’s a scary scenario.”
Well, I checked with the Tucson Police Department, Pima County Sheriff’s Department and U.S. Border Patrol, an agency that uses radiation detectors, and they didn’t know what he was referring to.
It’s old fashioned, I know, but I find that kind of casual fearmongering despicable. If it’s verifiably happening, say it. Otherwise, no way. Thankfully, not enough people listen to the show for it to have caused a panic.