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.

"It is the most truncated, screwed-up thing that you've ever seen," says former Dysart board member Dick McComb, and he's spent a career in city finance.

Dysart's turned out to be especially so. Koch and Parker and Nelson stepped into this mess and started asking questions, which at first were dismissed as a case of misunderstanding how things were done--money carried over from one year to the next as a start-up or back-up fund, for example, was not money found--which did not stop Sun City West folks from standing up in board meetings and declaring that it was. To the administrators and the incumbent board members, this seemed to be further manifestations of Sun City disease.

The district's finance manager, Dave Hammond, was also new to the district and its books. Since his arrival last summer, he had spent more time trying to overhaul the accounting methods and setting up a database than scrutinizing the accounts. He was working alone, since the district could not afford assistance.

The new board members demanded an accounting of all monies, which is hardly an unreasonable request. In fact, one would assume that a new finance manager at a financially strapped school district would immediately try to make sure just how much money the district had to work with.

Why that was not done is a wonder.
In addition to being complex, school finance is also fluid: State monies are calculated from a count of students, and this year, the Legislature increased the per-student amount. Also, Dysart officials had no idea until the students showed up how much they would be spending to comply with federal bilingual education and special education statutes, or if they would need to obtain portable classrooms to accommodate student overflow. These were all things that the new board needed to understand and be patient with.

The board asked Hammond to start with the $800,000 of budget cuts that were proposed last year and see how many of them had actually been done and what the actual dollar amounts were.

At the February 10 board meeting, a red-faced Hammond found that the district had not allocated $313,000 in increased state funding and $200,000 in monies saved when vacancies were filled by lower-salaried employees or left unfilled.

Two weeks later, on February 24, Robert Koch started the school board meeting with the pledge of allegiance, and then the current president of Citizens for Tax Equity followed with the equally traditional demand that Dr. de la Garza issue a formal apology to the senior community.

A Dysart teacher delivered an impassioned speech lauding de la Garza and asked the audience for a standing ovation on his behalf. The seniors remained seated.

Koch was in a conciliatory mood and apologized to teacher Buster Estrada for earlier suggesting that he limit his comment on agenda items. Eleanor Nelson suggested a change to the board-meeting rules that would forbid any derogatory remarks about any individuals. Koch pointed out to the former newspaper reporter that this might compromise free speech, and he noted that he agreed with Reverend Eickmann on this account.

The meeting droned on for hours before reaching the reason everyone had come. Koch calmly read to Hammond a list of other monies found: more than $100,000 in a donations fund, $250,000 here, $67,000 there, and by the time he was done, he had counted more than $1 million.

"That's a lot of money we're talking about," he said. "Big Bucks!"
Hammond squirmed and looked down at the table in front of him. De la Garza's eyes blazed.

Another account held $201,000 that had been wisely set aside as a legal slush fund. The district was unsure if it would have to pay attorneys' fees in the CTE lawsuits. And last year a Dysart teacher was convicted of child molestation; the district's insurance would only cover $100,000 in damages.

But when Koch asked at what point the lawsuits had all been settled and the money was no longer tied up, assistant superintendent Dr. Margo Seck voluntarily jumped on the hand grenade and told him that she had forgotten about it. Koch's face turned crimson when Hammond told him he wasn't sure how much of it was left.

Suddenly, there was unity on the board. Until that point, both Eickmann and Justice had been apologists for the district administration. Eickmann went after Hammond to ask why his questions had not been answered by the auditor hired to confirm Hammond's figures.

Neither Hammond nor de la Garza had convincing answers as to why they had so miscalculated. Koch asked the big question.

"Do the numbers indicate that the cuts did not need to be made?" he asked.
"I was not here," Hammond replied, "but I have to agree."
The meeting dragged on well after midnight without answering the questions as to why these budget discrepancies were either not disclosed to the board or were not discovered until nearly March, near the end of the school year. By law, only a percentage of monies can be carried over to the next school year.

Justice told New Times, "Those of us in the midst of it are confused. I have a lot of questions about why was this money found. Why now? And why wasn't Mr. Hammond on top of the budget within the first month he was here? I mean, that's the document we run this school district by, and the first month he was here he should have been extremely knowledgeable about the budget, and to hell with his database!"

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