A central issue in the May 20 recall election of two Sunnyside school board members is the state of the district under Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo’s leadership.
Three challengers who are trying to unseat and finish out the terms of two board members expressed disappointment with the management of the district, including a decline in the ratings of its schools and what they called wasteful spending since Isquierdo’s arrival in 2007. If just one of the challengers wins the recall, Isquierdo will lose the majority support of the board.
The incumbents credit Isquierdo with increasing graduation rates and his technology initiatives, including a laptop program for students, as ways he’s helped improve the quality of education in the Sunnyside Unified School District.
The district is also cutting positions — including some librarians and elementary art and music teachers — and closing two schools as cost-saving measures after district voters rejected a budget override last November.
Rebecca “Beki” Quintero, a longtime south-side community leader, and Mike Polak, who ran for the Ward 5 Tucson City Council seat in November, are seeking to unseat Bobby Garcia, a retired Tucson police officer, who’s serving his first term on the board.
Eric Giffin, who served on the board for 12 years, is running against Louie Gonzales, who has been on the board for 16 years.
The recall effort began last summer after Garcia, Gonzales, and Eva Carrillo Dong voted to extend Isquierdo’s contract after he withdrew his candidacy for a superintendent position in San Antonio when his personal financial and legal problems were reported by the media.
Among the issues were: Isquierdo’s filing for bankruptcy, a driver’s license suspension, several thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes and making more than $12,000 in unauthorized charges to a district credit card, which he later repaid.
Many district residents, parents and some employees opposed the contract extension.
Included in the reasons cited by the recall group in the petitions to recall Gonzales and Garcia are what they deemed the members’ failures: to respect and respond to input from the Sunnyside community and staff; to represent district voters; and to provide responsible and accountable fiscal oversight of scarce taxpayer dollars.
Gonzales and Garcia told the Star in response to a survey sent to all candidates, that Isquierdo intends to retire when his contract expires in 2016.
The election was ordered in January after a group of citizens collected more than 2,000 signatures on separate petitions to recall Gonzales and Garcia. About two-thirds of those signatures were accepted by the Pima County Recorder’s Office, more than enough to force the recall.
According to the Recorder’s Office, 26,424 ballots were mailed in late April for the election, which is being conducted by mail. As of Wednesday, 2,767 ballots, or 10.47 percent had been signature-verified by the office. The election will cost the district an estimated $98,000 based on a 30 percent voter turnout.
Should a challenger win a seat, he or she will finish out the remainder of the incumbent’s term, which will expire in December 2016.
The Star asked the candidates to respond to several questions. Here are their emailed answers, edited for space, on three topics.
Q: What do you think of Manuel Isquierdo’s performance as superintendent the last seven years? Would you support a contract renewal for Isquierdo when his current contract expires? Why or why not?
Garcia: One of my first actions as a board member in 2013 was to review Dr. Isquierdo’s job performance. All board members unanimously determined he rated 93% success in reaching his goals. Dr. Isquierdo has proven to me to be a leader who has increased achievement and improved outcomes for all students. He has displayed success through his integrity, intent, capability and results. He is retiring at the end of his contract.
Giffin: I was the only board member who voted not to hire Dr. Isquierdo in 2007. I still feel that it was not a wise choice to hire him. We need good role models for our young people and for staff development, which is lacking now.
Gonzales: Dr. Isquierdo has performed well beyond ... board members’ expectations. Under his leadership the district has doubled graduation numbers; brought technology into our classrooms and the homes of our students; and given our students a chance for a better education and preparation for their future in college and a career. Dr. Isquierdo has indicated he will retire at the end of the 2016 contract.
Polak: I am disappointed to see how mismanaged the district is. I have attended many board meeting and have seen Mr. Isquierdo show disrespect and insubordinate behavior to the board members. ... Mr. Isquierdo has shown his unethical practices and does not obtain the board’s approval first. I will not support a contract renewal.
Quintero: I would not support the current superintendent for contract renewal. Prior to 2007 our district had better performing schools, we were a district with A+ and Blue Ribbon schools; however, the past seven years, there has been a severe decline in our school system under the direction of our current School Superintendent, Manuel Isquierdo.
Q: The last three budget overrides have failed public votes. Why do you think they have failed? What does the district need to do to earn the public’s support for any future budget overrides?
Garcia: I was not a board member during the first two override elections and am therefore unable to make a comment on them. I believe the outside negativity leading up to the last election caused the community to focus on other issues, shifting support away from the financial need that was the basis for the override. I believe now it is more an issue of economic recovery than needing to earn trust.
Giffin: Dr. Isquierdo’s high salary and spending does not sit well with the voters.
Gonzales: Economic times have been tough. Voters chose to support the bond in 2011, but economic times worsened in 2012, making approval difficult. Political friction, unsubstantiated accusations and destructive behavior of a few individuals fostered community distrust and the override failed a third time. (The district needs to) continue to educate our community on the need for supplementing weak state funding with override revenues.
Polak: As a parent (of a Sunnyside student) I do not want my taxes to go up due to mismanagement of school funds and top-heavy administration that should be reduced as well as the wasteful spending. I believe the overrides failed due to the distrust of Mr. Isquierdo’s mishandling of the district. There will not be support from the public. This is because they know the money would be wasted and misused.
Quintero: I believe that you are a reflection of your actions, and the actions of the superintendent indicate that he is not responsible with his own personal finances, nor the district’s. I believe the last three budget overrides have failed because the community does not trust our monies will be spent wisely under the current leadership.
Q: How can the district show it is fiscally responsible?
Garcia: I believe the district is fiscally responsible and our community recognizes this. Criticism of fiscal irresponsibility is a political rally with no facts that support it. Our financial and business offices have received awards for their sound and effective financial practices year after year. We will continue to share these recognitions with the public.
Giffin: We need to cut the size of our central office, “administrative staff” and dedicate our efforts to keeping schools open, reducing class size and put more than 48 cents out of every dollar in the class room.
Gonzales: Communicate more effectively that we have been fiscally responsible especially as we have suffered multiple years of declining funding from the state and further loss of funding with loss of override funds. Continue to communicate that even with these losses of funding, we have maintained our programs for students and received state and national awards and recognition for our financial and business practices.
Polak: The district needs to conduct an independent audit to show where the money really goes. That includes all purchase orders and request for quotes to see who processed and approved them. Then we will need to write a budget that shows every detail of the district’s proposed expenditures. We should cut wasteful programs and contracts that have no return on investment. We will also need to make this presentation public and have more oversight on all activity. Also the superintendent should ask the board’s approval on all major contract issues. The superintendent works for the board; the board does not work for the superintendent.
Quintero: I believe the district needs to make some hard decisions to cut from the top-heavy administration level and put money back into the programs that address the needs of the students. The decisions need to be very transparent and we need to have open dialogue with the community to get feedback from them regarding overrides.