An Arizona lawmaker’s effort to punish TUSD for what he alleged was inappropriate spending focused mainly on his claim that desegregation dollars were used to renovate a Tucson High gymnasium.
The Star decided to fact-check the assertion by Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley. While he failed to win support late last month to require TUSD to undergo a forensic audit of its spending, his claim mostly checks out.
District leaders say more stringent oversight now governs desegregation spending than existed back in 2009 when TUSD used $3.5 million in desegregation funds for the $13 million renovation.
TUSD receives about $64 million a year in desegregation funds under a 40-year-old court order intended to help deal with racial disparities.
The gymnasium spending was approved when the governing board included current board members Adelita Grijalva and Mark Stegeman.
“It sounds really bad when you don’t have the full context,” Grijalva said of the decision made under the leadership of then-superintendent Elizabeth Celania-Fagen to spend desegregation dollars to remedy a civil-rights issue.
“I’m not suggesting that in the past things weren’t paid for with desegregation dollars that shouldn’t have been, but at the time the criteria was ‘will it help students?’ That was very broad,” she said.
The expenditure was to correct a situation at Tucson High in which the boys basketball team practiced in the main gym and the girls team had to use an inadequate facility, or possibly practice outside.
When Stegeman supported the use of desegregation funds, he recalled deferring to the judgment of longtime TUSD board member Judy Burns because he was only about five months into his term.
An audio transcript of the 2009 meeting shows Burns worried about using desegregation money on the gym.
In response, a district official told Burns that the expenditure was allowable because it was being used to make a magnet school more attractive by creating a gymnasium that went above and beyond what existed at other TUSD high schools.
The response from Burns: “I don’t know that I completely buy that and I don’t know that the community would.”
“There are so many needs and to use $3.5 million of deseg capital for this purpose when it was supposed to be a bond project, it does concern me,” Burns said then.
Still, Burns voted for it, citing deadlines to get the project done.
There was no mention in the recording of the public meeting about an office of civil-rights complaint.
As long as the expenditure did indeed address equal-access issues, Stegeman says that served a legitimate desegregation purpose. He was unsure on Wednesday whether $3.5 million in desegregation funding was needed to make that a reality.
“I shared her concerns and asked for her overall assessment of it,” Stegeman said Wednesday of Burns. “I was prepared to support her because she knew a lot more about it than I did.”
Since that 2009 vote, TUSD has had two other superintendents.
It also had its federal desegregation court order lifted, only to have it reinstated a couple of years later with additional oversight. That includes the appointment of a national desegregation expert to help oversee TUSD’s efforts and spending.
Even desegregation spending the district believed aligned with the court order — like using it for bilingual teachers, psychologists, sociologists and an arts program that has been proven to increase student achievement — has been denied in recent months.
H.T. Sanchez, TUSD’s current superintendent, says desegregation spending is now strictly controlled.
“I can’t speak to what previous superintendents did and what the context was,” Sanchez said. “It’s not fair of me to do that because I wasn’t here in this seat when the issues came forward. … As long as I’ve been here, these funds have been tightly monitored, tightly supervised, high scrutinized. It has been that way for the 19 months I’ve been here.”
Sanchez took the same message to the House Appropriations Committee last week. The committee turned down Finchem’s request for a forensic audit of TUSD, choosing instead to take no vote, which essentially killed the proposal.
In the past, desegregation spending has been used by former superintendents to pay for things like expenses, filing cabinets, copiers and even janitorial services.
Sanchez concedes that historically, the district had more discretion in spending desegregation money, but was careful not to criticize what was done before all the new oversight procedures were in place and before he arrived on the scene.
And while Sanchez does not know exactly when spending that some would call questionable stopped, he said it’s not happening now.
“I haven’t had the free luxury to do as I saw fit or interpreted the appropriate use of (desegregation) funds to be,” he said.
Sylvia Campoy, a representative of the Latino plaintiffs in TUSD’s desegregation case, said that the timing of the gym expenditure is not important because the district has always been obligated to tie its desegregation-funded expenditures to the court order.
“We know that because of lack of attention to these very areas, the district remains under the court order today,” Campoy said. “We also know that historically, expenditures have not always been correlated to the court order. The gym expenditure may be one such example.”
But Campoy says it is not practical to go back and audit expenditures for the last four decades.
“As the plaintiffs push to move forward, the focus must be in putting accountability measures in place that become systemic so that the checks and balances which have been absent over the last four decades do not reoccur,” said Campoy, who noted that the effort is close to becoming reality.
As an example, she said that starting July 1, TUSD will have new software in place that will easily break down more than five dozen different desegregation projects.
For each project, the software will show the amount of money allocated, how much was spent and the balance.