Tim Steller: Sunnyside Superintendent Isquierdo must go; district issue separate

2013-04-26T00:00:00Z 2013-04-26T08:29:08Z Tim Steller: Sunnyside Superintendent Isquierdo must go; district issue separateTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 26, 2013 12:00 am  • 

At Sunnyside Unified School District's raucous board meeting Tuesday night, critics of the financially troubled superintendent continued their calls for him to be fired. The non sequitur of a response from his defenders: But the district's performance is improving.

It was standing-room only, and I was outside the boardroom with dozens of others, wanting to shout: "You're both right!"

Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo can merit firing at the same time Sunnyside is improving. Criticizing Isquierdo is not the same as undermining the district, or insulting the south side.

But that idea seemed lost on some speakers, including Isquierdo himself. After my call last week for the board to fire him, the superintendent put an item on Tuesday's agenda:

"We have recently received negative comments from some local media and feel it important to take this time to remind ourselves and our community of some of the extraordinary work and successes Sunnyside Unified School District has achieved over the last few years. As we have always said, we need to define the message of who we are and not let the media define it for us. Sunnyside is doing amazing things, and we need to be proactive in reminding people about it."

This is classic deflection. The critiques are not of Sunnyside as a whole but of Isquierdo as an individual.

That hasn't stopped some people associated with this district from taking criticism of Isquierdo personally.

"I'm tired of people saying, 'You're from the south side; you're from Sunnyside,' " board member Eva Dong said during the meeting, after describing her educational journey through Sunnyside to the University of Arizona. "We need to be proud of ourselves as a district."

Staff member Liz Greenlee regretted that the district has returned to a period of conflict.

"When we have a spasm, it gets horrible and ugly," she said outside the meeting, noting that some neighborhood critics always seem to stoke conflict. "When they see a problem come about, they escalate it to a point that it seems like everything in the district is horrible."

It's certainly true that not everything in the district is horrible. Isquierdo can - and did - point proudly to increased graduation rates under his tenure as evidence of Sunnyside's improvement. Some faculty members at the meeting accused him of playing tricks and lowering expectations to achieve those rates, but Dong pointed out that all the graduates passed the AIMS test.

However, even if progress has been made on that key issue, teachers and staff members expressed extreme frustration at wage cuts and deplorable working conditions. When the board went into executive session and the room emptied out, I sat next to Gallego Elementary kindergarten teacher Mary Martinez, who described how she and other teachers regularly must buy classroom supplies.

"If I don't get a raise, I'm OK with it as long as I get the resources I need for the job," she said. "If I didn't have to spend money on school supplies, I'd be OK financially."

A crowd of transportation workers grew upset as they told me and my colleague Jamar Younger about their working conditions: Their facilities lack hot water, employees must bring their own toilet paper and soap, and mechanics must buy some of their own tools, among other things.

So if Isquierdo wants to debate the condition of the district as a whole, he doesn't necessarily win that debate either, and he certainly doesn't look like a guy who merits a $305,000 compensation package.

But that isn't the point of the main criticism. The criticism is of a leader who has lost his credibility in the district by:

• Overcharging the district for $12,545 in travel expenses.

• Dismissing a teacher who blew the whistle on other teachers whom she accused of cheating on standardized tests.

• Having his driver's license suspended for failing to pay fines for traffic violations.

• Being ordered by the state attorney general to receive election-law education after Sunnyside athletes were asked to distribute budget-override campaign materials.

• Buying a $1.15 million house in Oro Valley in a sweetheart deal with $5,000 down, then promptly defaulting on the purchase - all after losing his previous home in California to foreclosure.

• Wasting district money by filing a lawsuit against "John and Jane Doe" - in other words, against nobody in particular - for leaking the preliminary results of a district audit.

• Receiving $7,000 in bonus pay that he had to re-pay because he had not presented performance objectives required for the bonus.

Former board member Magdalena Barajas this week joined the chorus demanding that Isquierdo resign or be fired.

"At some point it became, if you weren't with, you were against," she told me by phone from New York University, where she is attending graduate school. "Once you start to voice concerns and ask questions, you're basically put into the second tier."

That meant being kept out of the loop, Barajas said.

"It was very unnerving to say, 'If I speak up about this, I might not get any information.' "

Think about that: An elected school board member was afraid to question the superintendent for fear of losing access to information.

Saying that is not besmirching or undermining the district. It's just pointing out one more reason Isquierdo must go.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

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