Tim Steller: Sunnyside should dismiss Isquierdo

2013-04-17T00:00:00Z 2013-04-17T13:10:19Z Tim Steller: Sunnyside should dismiss IsquierdoTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
April 17, 2013 12:00 am  • 

It's hard to pick the best symbol of Manuel Isquierdo's nearly six years as superintendent of the Sunnyside Unified School District.

You could choose the laptop computer, hundreds of which the district has given to students who perform well under an initiative by Isquierdo.

You could pick Isquierdo's $1.15 million palace overlooking a golf course in Oro Valley, which he and his wife bought in 2011 and which they are losing to foreclosure.

Or you could settle on an amazing little lawsuit the district spent precious tax dollars to file in October 2009.

The district filed the complaint against "John Does and Jane Does 1-10, ABC Partnerships 1-10; XYZ Corporations 1-10." In other words, Sunnyside did not even know who it was suing.

The allegation: that this unidentified person, partnership or corporation leaked information from an incomplete audit to the public and press in an email that contained "numerous falsehoods."

Of course, the final audit found that a central contention in the email - that Isquierdo misused a district credit card - was largely true. And the district was forced to dismiss the lawsuit three months later, because, not knowing whom they were suing, the district could not serve it on any defendants.

Still, the point was apparently made to potential district dissidents: We'll go after you if you oppose us.

Isquierdo's tenure has been marked by some apparently strong accomplishments: the laptop program and improved graduation rates. But his mind-boggling personal financial decisions - and those of the board that has supported him - have undermined his authority before Tucsonans in general, the district's residents and its students.

Isquierdo has a year left on his generous contract, but the board should find a way to remove this discredited salesman as soon as possible.

Some of Isquierdo's faults had been revealed in the Star before a San Antonio school district picked him as its new superintendent April 4. But additional scrutiny by the San Antonio Express-News led to him backing out of consideration and has only added to the picture of a man who cannot be trusted around money.

• He owes $150,000 in federal taxes, due, he says, to using retirement money to try to save his home in Stockton, Calif., from foreclosure.

• He began his tenure in Sunnyside by overcharging the district by $12,545 largely for travel expenses - the subject of the 2009 audit.

• He left traffic tickets unpaid and had his license suspended.

• He and his wife bought the 5,764 square foot home in March 2011, only to fall so far behind on payments that within two years it is headed toward a trustees sale.

The seller financed the sale, by the way, and Isquierdo put down just $5,000, or 0.4 percent, of the purchase price.

"It's not just one incident - it's a pattern," Sunnyside board member Daniel Hernandez Jr. said Tuesday.

Perhaps the most damaging money issue that has dogged Isquierdo is his outrageous compensation package, which adds up to $305,000. That includes a base salary of $150,000, plus $75,000 to cover expenses related to selling the "Digital Advantage" educational program.

Under an agreement with a private business, Sunnyside receives either $15,000 or $30,000 for each program sold to other schools, so the idea is that the $75,000 will help Isquierdo sell the program, potentially making money for Sunnyside.

Hernandez, the most outspoken critic on the five-member board, shakes his head at the contract deal, which was completed in secret in June 2011 and does not require Isquierdo to detail his spending.

"I'm very disturbed by the fact that the board would allow somebody to have a $75,000, essentially, expense account with no accounting. And he got it after misusing district funds," Hernandez said. "The way that the contract was written goes so far into his corner that it almost seems the district wasn't there negotiating when he made it."

Former board member Eric Giffin, whose term ended Dec. 30, 2010, was present for some of the negotiating and found Isquierdo's approach disturbing.

"From the first meeting, he kept talking about money, money, money," Giffin said.

Isquierdo's generous contract was an issue voters mentioned frequently when Sunnyside asked for a budget override last year, Hernandez said. It failed.

Now, with more details emerging about Isquierdo's financial failures, Sunnyside voters are unlikely to be any more sympathetic to a budget override, which the district says it needs to avoid painful layoffs.

"We're not going to pass another override until he's gone," said Beki Quintero, president of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association.

Isquierdo's leading backer, board president Louie Gonzales, dismissed recent criticisms as a re-hashing of old incidents.

"We have gained so much from his services, it's unbelievable," Gonzales said. "In our district things have changed: You must perform. You must teach. The children must have an education."

"He still has a contract for another year. How can we fire him? What did he do wrong that would cause the board to terminate him?"

True, a firing now would likely cost the board another $305,000. But Isquierdo's credibility as a financial manager and a responsible adult is shot. He is also essentially a lame duck, having shown his desire to leave.

And potentially the voters will reward the decision with an override that could bring in $12 million more.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-8427

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