Tim Steller: It's Isquierdo or (not and) a budget override

2013-06-12T00:00:00Z 2013-06-12T09:58:22Z Tim Steller: It's Isquierdo or (not and) a budget overrideTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
June 12, 2013 12:00 am  • 

The majority on the Sunnyside school board seems to want it both ways.

On Monday, the board held talks with Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo over extending his contract - a mind-boggling concept on its own.

In the next couple of weeks, it will decide whether to schedule a budget override election for this November.

I feel assured that they can't have both. It will be hard to sell an override to Sunnyside voters in any case - Sunnyside already has the third-highest tax rate of the 17 school districts in Pima County, at 6.3 percent.

Isquierdo is controversial enough that, if the board extends his contract, the override may be impossible.

What that means is that, in the end, the board may have to choose between Isquierdo's interests and the interests of the rest of the district's employees, who will continue to suffer without an override.

Sunnyside's approximately 2,000 employees have gone five years without a raise. They've also endured painful budget cuts that will only get worse without an override. Sunnyside students, of course, suffer alongside their teachers.

These factors were in place the last time district voters considered a budget override, but last November voters still turned down a requested override by 51 to 49 percent.

The biggest obstacle to passage remains in place, board member Buck Crouch told me Tuesday.

"When I was walking for the last override, I would say at least one out of every three doors I went to, they were concerned about the superintendent," he said.

That was before this year's new revelations about Isquierdo's personal financial indiscretions, which have only created greater mistrust of the superintendent among many district employees and residents.

Among Isquierdo's key missteps since arriving in July 2007:

• 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 traffic fines.

• Being ordered by the state attorney general to receive election-law education after Sunnyside athletes were asked in 2012 to distribute budget-override campaign materials.

• Buying a $1.15 million house in Oro Valley with only $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 repay because he had not presented performance objectives required for the bonus.

Despite all this, Isquierdo has won support on the board by improving the district's previously terrible graduation numbers and by positioning Sunnyside as "a tech-savvy district." Still, even the graduation numbers have been brought into question by accusations the district lowered standards in order to graduate more students.

Whatever the reason, three board members - Louis Gonzales, Eva Dong and Bobby Garcia - appear to support Isquierdo and are pushing the extension.

Isquierdo's present contract - which makes him perhaps the highest-paid superintendent in Southern Arizona at more than $300,000 in total compensation - expires June 30, 2014. The proposed extension would eliminate the most controversial portion of his current contract - $75,000 per year for Isquierdo to use selling the district's Digital Advantage/Project Graduation program.

Crouch and board member Daniel Hernandez appear to oppose the idea of an extension.

"If he's in the last year of his contract, we may have a chance of selling" the override, Crouch said.

But board President Gonzales looks at the lay of the land in Sunnyside differently. A "silent majority" appreciates what Isquierdo's been able to do, Gonzales told me Tuesday.

He added, "If we don't give the contract, there's no guarantee they will pass the bond override."

He's right. There's no guarantee either way. But giving Isquierdo a contract extension lowers the odds considerably. Beki Quintero, president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association, said she will work against the override if the board extends Isquierdo's contract, but would support the override if the board moves to end his tenure.

By either firing Isquierdo now, or by making clear this is his last year as superintendent, the board would give the district's staff and students a chance at avoiding painful cuts.

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

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