Steller: Sunnyside wants evidence of corruption, eh?

2013-09-25T00:00:00Z 2014-07-08T17:07:51Z Steller: Sunnyside wants evidence of corruption, eh?Tim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 25, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The Sunnyside school board sent out an invitation last week asking for evidence of corruption in the district.

I’d like to RSVP.

Actually, the invitation was intended only for Daniel Hernandez Jr., a member of the board’s two-person minority, who annoyed three of his board colleagues by saying in a fundraising letter that he was tackling “corruption” in the district. On Thursday, board members Louie Gonzales, Eva Dong and Bobby Garcia gave him five days to come up with proof.

Considering that two of the three are being targeted for recall, you could view the board majority’s invitation as a politically shortsighted way of slapping down their opponent. But let’s take them at face value and consider this a sincere request for information related to corruption or misbehavior in the district.

After all, following last week’s meeting, the district’s chief financial officer, Hector Encinas, penned an earnest letter to the state auditor general, asking that she contact Hernandez to ask him about the alleged corruption. He also said this: “I find it professionally and personally offensive that a Board member is publicly accusing the District and its employees of corruption and questioning directly or indirectly my honesty and integrity.”

Underlying the months of turmoil in Sunnyside has been the perception of corruption and abuse of power in the district, a perception that has prompted ongoing recall efforts against both the board’s majority and minority blocs.

Suspicions of corruption go back to the earliest days of Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo’s term in charge. Before he was hired at Sunnyside, when he was between school-district jobs, Isquierdo worked for Great Schools Workshop, a private educational training company, assuming the title of “Superintendent-in-Residence.”

No sooner had Isquierdo arrived in Tucson in 2007 than the district put out a request-for-proposals for a company to come in and do just the kind of work Great Schools Workshop does. Three years and at least $539,000 later, the district pronounced schools such as Apollo Middle School “transformed,” thanks in part to Great Schools Workshop.

I spoke to Ray Chavez, who was principal of Apollo at the time, and he said he found value in the training Great Schools offered. Nevertheless, the school has had three consecutive years of “D” grades from the Department of Education since then and is at risk of being deemed “failing.”

Is this evidence of corruption? Not necessarily, but you could argue that Isquierdo rewarded his former employer with contracts. In any case, it could merit further inquiry.

But that’s ancient history, right? When it comes to types of corruption, the name of the game most critics point to in Sunnyside is nepotism.

School board president Gonzales has numerous family members employed by the district. By law, Gonzales can vote on whether to approve the hires, unless the person being hired is his spouse, and so he does vote on them.

But he doesn’t think the fact that he has three generations of family members working for the district, several hired since he came on the board, is evidence of any sort of wrongdoing or corruption.

“They go through the testing process,” he told me Tuesday. “They have their degrees. You have to go through personnel to even qualify. They’re good candidates.”

To continue the corruption search, we could reach way back into ancient history and recall the district’s use in 2011 of Sunnyside football players to campaign in an override election. Or hark back to 2010, when a Sunnyside math coach reported she saw cheating on a standardized test — and promptly lost her job.

Now that they mention it, maybe this is a great time to scrutinize Sunnyside for corruption.

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

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