Sun City Disease

Every 10 years, retirement communities sweat local school-funding increases and flare up in anti-tax fever. This year's infection is in the Dysart Unified School District.

That "illegal" ward system has since become an issue for Justice's recall.
In May 1997, the district tried to pass another override and again failed. The administration then announced that it would need to make severe program cuts in the amount of $800,000. They scrapped art and music programs, physical education, athletics (later restored through community donations), the gifted program, and slashed away at staff and clerical positions.

Those students who had the means responded by leaving the district.
"At one point in the '96-97 school year, we had 187 new students and 198 left us," says Pam Justice.

Most of the neighboring districts do not keep statistics of where their open-enrollment students come from. The Peoria district does, however, and it currently has 149 children in its schools who live within the Dysart boundaries, which represents about $600,000 worth of state funds lost to the district.

With the ward system gone, the seniors swept the November elections. Fewer than 3,000 voters turned out at the polls. Of the incumbents, Dick McComb did not run, and Mary Johnson, an African American, and Rachel Villanueva, a Hispanic, lost their seats.

(Ironically, last week's board meeting agenda carried an item to investigate ways to assure minority representation on the board.)

Rumors of racism had been circulating. Dr. Jesus de la Garza, the district superintendent, received an anonymous letter that in cloying rhyme explained how illegals take advantage of welfare and other benefits.

But it was a stretch to say that the newly elected board members were either racist or lacking the experience needed to be school board members.

Koch spent his career as a federal attorney working on behalf of Native American tribes. Rose Parker had been a career special education teacher, working in predominantly African-American and Hispanic schools in Chicago, before moving to suburban Los Angeles, where she taught for another 15 years and served as a union representative. Eleanor Nelson had been a schoolteacher before becoming a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

But among the district's longtime residents, there was justifiable resentment of the newcomers. None had lived in the district--in Arizona, for that matter--for longer than three years. Not only had they run on a platform hostile to the existing school board and administration, touting deannexation, but they had not attended school board meetings prior to their election.

Lisa Rodriguez had called the candidates to campaign at PTO meetings and tell the parents what they stood for, but they refused because "they all felt they would be attacked."

Rodriguez claims that Nelson told her, "The best I can do is forward our resumes."

They had no working knowledge of school board operations in general, or Dysart in particular, and much time has been spent in meetings bringing them up to speed.

"I find it very amazing that they are able to pass judgment on decisions that were made last year," says parent Annette Baker, whose husband is stationed at Luke Air Force Base. "I was in attendance. Had they been there, we wouldn't be having half the discussions we have now, because they would have understood how we made decisions. It's very frustrating as a parent because I feel they're wasting our time right now on the things they question. Where were they?"

The seniors took office in December and took control. Koch and Parker elected themselves president and vice president. They fired the law firm that represented the district, then hired the attorney who had represented Citizens for Tax Equity in two lawsuits against the district, the first to knock down the ward system, and the second in structuring the deannexation election.

In order to deannex, both the areas wanting to secede and the areas remaining must approve the deannexation. So 6,000 people within the deannexation area can vote unanimously to leave, but if only six people vote in the remaining area, and four of them vote against it, the deannexation cannot happen. The question arose as to whether the four distinct senior neighborhoods that wanted to deannex would be counted as one unit--which would work in favor of keeping the district intact--or as separate units--which would favor deannexation.

At first, the County Attorney's Office set up the election so that each of the four secessionist groups would be treated separately as four separate questions. Each senior neighborhood would vote for its own deannexation and then be counted as part of the remaining area to vote for each of the other three deannexations. In essence, they would be able to vote four times for deannexation, once for themselves and once for three other neighborhoods, thereby assuring its passage.

Dysart took Maricopa County to court over the ballot and had it knocked down. The court ruled that the seniors would be treated as one group, and, consequently, the election now is just as assured to go in favor of the district.

But if past voter turnout is any indication, Pam Justice, the most experienced board member, and arguably one of the brightest, will not be so lucky. She will likely be replaced by a fourth CTE candidate named Nancy Harrower.

A public school budget is so complex as to practically require a military code breaker to decipher.

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