An Arizona lawmaker is accusing the Tucson Unified School District of having something to hide after the district backed out of a planned public forum about its longstanding desegregation case, arguing the forum was actually a partisan campaign event for the lawmaker who organized it.
Republican Rep. Todd Clodfelter of Tucson said he organized the Deseg 101 forum to have a “nonpolitical, nonpartisan” discussion about issues surrounding TUSD’s longstanding desegregation lawsuit, including how it began, where the money goes and when it will end.
To that end, Clodfelter invited the Arizona Tax Research Association, a conservative tax watchdog group that has long advocated for eliminating the district’s $64 million desegregation budget, to take the stage with TUSD Superintendent Gabriel Trujillo on Tuesday, July 31, at Tucson Baptist Church.
The district agreed, and Clodfelter announced the forum two weeks ago in a press release sent from the Arizona House of Representatives. But he later created a Facebook event stating the forum was being hosted by “Clodfelter for Arizona.” That set off red flags for the district, according to TUSD’s contract lobbyist, John Kelly of Triadvocates.
“As soon as we saw that (Facebook event), I called him and said our legal counsel has advised that (the district) can’t participate,” Kelly said. “It’s a campaign event, even though he doesn’t think it is or want us to believe it is. So TUSD can’t participate.”
But Clodfelter said that rationale seems like an excuse. He said even though it lists his campaign Facebook page, the event was never sponsored by his campaign and doing so would be “ inappropriate, unethical and illegal.”
Clodfelter said he communicated with Kelly about the forum for months, and over the course of five or six conversations, “They were growing more and more and more concerned with what might be discussed, because (they said) there’s some sensitive things that can’t be made public because it would put things at risk.”
He said he suspected that’s because TUSD is under court oversight and doesn’t want the plaintiffs to use something Trujillo might say at the forum against the district.
“It’s disappointing. It’s one more thing that presents the question of what are they hiding? Why are they so non-transparent?” Clodfelter said.
Trujillo said the ongoing legal battle is part of the issue, and there are some things about the lawsuit that the district can’t discuss in public. And he noted that open meeting laws would limit the Governing Board’s ability to participate in a public forum.
Instead, he said TUSD is attempting to set up its own forum a month or so down the line, where members of the public would be allowed to ask questions about the desegregation efforts.
But that’s not the same as having two sides of an issue on stage together, Clodfelter said.
“If you’re only going to listen to TUSD, then you’re just drinking the Kool-Aid from one glass. You need to hear from both sides,” he said.
Trujillo said the district separately wants to actively engage in smaller stakeholder groups with lawmakers, and the public may or may not be allowed, depending on what the other stakeholders want.
Kelly noted that TUSD has been criticized by members of the Legislature in the past for hosting events some saw as partisan, even though all members of the Legislature were invited. So the district is “extremely sensitive to doing something that’s deemed partisan or political.”
Kelly said he told Clodfelter that the district wouldn’t participate a week ago, but Clodfelter hasn’t stopped advertising the event. Kelly said TUSD would likely be willing to have a conversation in a different setting or after the campaign season.
“I think he’s figuring out that every time you’re in campaign season it can get a little bit dicey. We’re not trying to make it harder for him. But it looks like he made it harder for himself,” Kelly said.