By Ray Stern
By Ray Stern
By New Times
By Amy Silverman
By Stephen Lemons
By Stephen Lemons
By Monica Alonzo
By Chris Parker
The president summons him to a microphone.
"I had to stand up and shout like Sam Donaldson at the White House. What is going on?"
What's going on is that the Dysart district has been in the national news for months, ever since its hostile takeover by tax rebels from the nearby retirement community of Sun City West. Three retirees elected to the board last fall ran on a platform of getting themselves out of the district and out of having to pay secondary property taxes to build new schools. Then they started asking questions, rooting through the budget for ill-spent and unspent money like someone lifting the sofa cushions looking for loose change. And in the process they tore a community apart.
The elderly dissenter at the microphone harangues the new school board, taking side with the beleaguered school administration, though curiously, he lives in one of the nearby retirement villages that already don't pay school taxes. In other words, he's already got what the new board members want, and he himself doesn't pay anything to keep the schools going.
But he's got his two cents to offer, and he scolds until his allotted time runs out, but he never actually makes a point, which does not go unnoticed by the school board president, Robert Koch.
"He seems to have a lot to say, but very little meaningful," Koch retorts, raising shocked and disapproving cries of "ohhhh" from the 200 people or so in the audience in the Dysart high school cafeteria.
The new board members and the incumbents are so at odds with each other that they don't make eye contact and instead stare sullenly toward the audience. At least half of the spectators are retirees from Sun City West, come to give support to their champions on the board. They stand up at the microphone to excoriate the school administration and get hooted down by the school-kid parents. Then the parents and the teachers step forward to dress down the old-timers, who rail and rattle back.
"When you were elected to the school board, you were elected to represent everyone," Buster Estrada, head of the teachers' organization, tells them while wagging a finger.
"Regardless of where you live in this country--except for one small place up the road--we all pay our taxes," one former board member shouts into the microphone.
And indeed, in Sun City and Sun City West, Arizona, and nowhere else in the nation, senior-citizen communities have cut themselves out of school districts. So instead of paying the secondary property taxes that fund school improvements and construction, the seniors pay a significantly lower "Qualifying Tax Rate" of $2.20 per $100 of assessed valuation.
Herein lies the Dysart fight. The newer parts of Sun City West, referred to as the Sun City West expansion, lie within the Dysart boundaries, and those seniors who live there question why they should pay more than the neighboring seniors when they don't have children in the schools, either.
The district administration, including the soft-spoken and well-loved superintendent, Dr. Jesus de la Garza, and the not-so-soft-spoken Estrada, had loudly and publicly blamed the seniors for the district's financial distress. The seniors, after all, had voted down a series of bond and budget-override initiatives that would have raised monies but also would have raised property taxes. Coast to coast, Dysart became another silly Arizona story, coots versus kids.
Joan Shaefer, the feisty grandmotherly mayor of the city of Surprise, which overlaps the Dysart district, told the Washington Post that the retirees were "selfish, self-centered gray-haired old farts."
Infuriated by the derision, the vindictive residents of Sun City West staged a democratic coup last fall and took over the board. On March 10, they will likely score another board seat in a recall election, and they will vote on whether the Sun City West expansion area will be allowed to "de-annex," that is, secede from the district altogether.
After the last bond issue failed last year, the administration dramatically sliced nearly $800,000 from the budget by drastically cutting school programs. The senior community argued that the district just didn't know how to manage its money; the more paranoid factions screamed that the administrators had plenty of money that they were hiding or unaware of.
Then, to everyone's surprise, it came to pass that they did. Audits turned up what may amount to as much as $1 million in unallocated funds that could have been spent on teacher raises and lost programs. So far, no one can explain how that happened.
Though 65 to 70 percent of the district's 4,000 kids are Hispanic, there are very few brown adult faces here at the school board meeting, and most of those belong to teachers. And that's the problem. Although the seniors compose only about a third of the electorate, they vote as a bloc, and the Hispanics barely vote at all. The result has been lopsided representation on the board: Three of the five board members are retirees without kids in the district. One of the other two is facing recall on March 10 and will likely lose her seat to another retiree.
There is little threat that the deannexation initiative will pass, given the manner in which the election is structured. And the driving issue--secondary property taxes to fund school capital improvements--may soon be a nonissue. It will be rendered moot if the state Legislature finally does its job and comes up with a more equitable school-finance concept. There won't be any more bonds, not in Dysart anyway.
When that happens, the three or four board members who ran on a no-tax platform will have to decide whether to stay on the board. And if they leave, there will be nothing left but the hard feelings.
Dysart is a growing district. Its 140 square miles stretch from Jomax Road on the north to Glendale Avenue on the south, and from 115th Avenue on the east to the White Tank Mountains. It covers Luke Air Force Base, all of the town of El Mirage, the lion's share of Surprise, and parts of Youngtown and Sun City West. It has four elementary schools, a middle school and a high school.
Its residents form a socioeconomic pastiche. Though the seniors complain about having fixed incomes, they are hardly living in the Westward Ho and eating cat food out of cans. A spokesman for the Del Webb Corporation, which builds and markets the Sun Cities, places them in the upper echelons of retiree income. Their houses, though not necessarily sumptuous, still dwarf the lower-income homes of the longtime residents, rural Hispanics who have spent generations working the farms and ranches of the northwest Valley.
The rose and broccoli and cotton fields where they worked, however, are rapidly giving way to development, not only to retirement communities, but to generic red-tile-roof homes bought up by yuppies who can't afford to live closer in to Phoenix. Those new white folks don't necessarily want their children to attend the poorer schools on the Spanish side of the district. Instead they ship them out to neighboring districts. To date, student flight has slowed the growth of the student body at Dysart and put off the need for new schools. For now.
Meanwhile, the district is at a standstill, stalled by allegations of mismanagement, stalled by the Legislature's foot dragging, stalled by infighting and finger pointing. The seniors demand public apologies of the school district. The holdovers from the old board accuse the newcomers of subterfuge and even of violating the state's open-meeting laws. Meanwhile, the business of running a school gets caught in the crossfire.
"The neighborhood is great," says Lisa Rodriguez, who moved to Surprise from inner-city Phoenix for her children's sake and safety. "The family life, the community is wonderful for children to grow up in. The school district is awful."
Bob Koch pays secondary property taxes, his neighbors don't.
"There's a wall right behind my property," he says. "On the other side of that wall are the roofs of the houses that pay one third of the taxes I pay. I can throw a rock there and hit the tops of the roofs."
Koch is a wiry 59-year-old with a white mustache and a terminal New York accent that resisted a career-long stay in Washington, D.C., where he was an attorney for the federal government.
In private conversation, he is courteously direct. In school board meetings, he is caustic and authoritarian. He came to the fray as the president of the Sun City West group that calls itself Citizens for Tax Equity. How he got there is anyone's guess, because he confesses that he doesn't particularly like life in a retirement community and finds its residents opinionated.
"If I ever leave here, I will not live in another age-restricted community," he says.
As property taxes go, the Dysart district's are in the lowest quartile, compared to other districts. Taxes are based on assessed value, which is about 10 percent of full cash value, which is about 82 percent of market value: In other words, a $100,000 house would have a full cash value of $82,000 and an assessed value of $8,200. Koch pays $6.93 per $100 of assessed valuation. But his neighbors pay just $2.20. Clearly this is not equitable, but rather than campaign to spread that tax burden to the Sun Cities, his tax-equity group has instead lobbied to be likewise relieved of the tax responsibility.
"It would be social suicide," Koch says. "Everything else in Sun City West is one, all the clubs, everything is together. This is the only thing that divides us."
Not everyone believes that they are motivated by a sense of what's fair.
"They don't want tax equity, they want to dump their tax burden on somebody else," says Dick McComb, city manager for Surprise and a former school board member.
Because the Sun Cities lie in unincorporated areas of Maricopa County, they do not have police or streets departments and instead depend on the county to provide those services. Surprise funds its own municipal departments with a sales tax, which Sun City residents complain about.
"You pay county taxes, I pay county taxes, we all pay county taxes," says Surprise Mayor Joan Shaefer. "Those county taxes go towards their streets, their police, towards the fire district. So you are helping to subsidize their amenities. County has 14 riding mowers that are kept for nothing but to do the medians in the old Sun City. And to me, that is an inequity."
But they are a strong and wealthy Republican voting bloc. Democratic representative Ken Cheuvront recently tried to introduce legislation that would double the qualifying tax rate in the Sun Cities. Despite its popularity at the Capitol, the bill was allegedly ordered "disappeared" by Senate president Brenda Burns, whose district includes parts of Sun City.
"I am a grandparent and my grandchildren are going to school someplace," Shaefer continues. "Now somebody there, probably my age or maybe older, is helping to pay for that education. I don't feel that anybody has the right to state that they just don't want to pay school taxes anymore."
This tax question and the school-takeover tactics have arisen before, under dubiously similar circumstances, first in the 1970s in Sun City, then in Sun City West in the 1980s, and now again in the 1990s, as if it were some kind of age-related disease that strikes every 10 years.
"I think it's something in the water," jokes Pam Justice, a longtime area rancher and farmer whose school board seat is up for grabs in next week's recall election.
"It's a clustering of people with like minds," she continues. "When the person across the street and the people on both sides of you believe the same thing you believe, you can't be wrong."
Sun City was first marketed as retirement paradise in 1961, and the first documented cases of Sun City disease struck soon afterward.
Sun City was part of the Peoria school district, and then as now, senior citizens would come to school board meetings with lists of questions about district budgets. Between 1962 and 1973, five of eight bond issues failed in the district, and it became very clear that they would have passed in the city of Peoria but were failing in Sun City.
By 1973, the schools were so crowded that the district was forced into double sessions, and classes were held anywhere the space could be found, including church buildings.
Then-superintendent Mel Huber came up with a solution.
"I found an old law that provided a way for them to leave," recalls Huber, who is now retired himself.
"Philosophically, I didn't think they should be relieved of taxpaying responsibility, but it was the only option."
The retirees left the district in 1974, and business resumed. Peoria has built a school or more every year since.
In 1981, the disease struck again. Residents of Sun City West took over the Dysart school district and literally held it hostage. A $950,000 bond had been passed the year before, but the new board rescinded it. Then it proposed a deannexation election which in effect is two elections, one inside the area that wants to secede, and one in the remaining area. Both areas have to approve the measure, regardless of how many actual votes are cast: In the 1981 election, more than 2,000 Sun City Westers turned out and voted overwhelmingly to deannex; only 500 voters showed at the polls from the remaining Dysart district, but they, too, thought they would be better off without the Sun City West dissent, and the deannexation passed.
As part of the deal, the citizens of Sun City West tossed a tax bone to the district. A planned commercial district at the center of Sun City West would stay on the tax rolls. The idea failed, however: What sensible businessman would build in such a commercial core when he can just as easily locate across the street in a tax-free zone? Eventually, homes instead of businesses sprouted in the planned commercial core, and those homeowners still pay taxes.
"We are trying to consider some way to get the commercial back in the district," says Eleanor Nelson, board member and former member of Citizens for Tax Equity. How that can be done is anyone's guess.
In 1992, Del Webb bought another 1,800 acres of land adjacent to Sun City West and started building houses, and as seniors moved into that expansion area, the school squabbling began anew.
Citizens for Tax Equity holds that Del Webb was deceitful in its sales pitch, making the seniors believe that their taxes would be lower, a notion refuted by a quick trip to the Sun City West information center. There New Times encountered a half-dozen senior volunteers who asked what kind of fool would buy any real estate without knowing what the property taxes were. They personally had no problems paying school taxes.
But that is an entirely different thing from being offered an opportunity to vote yourself out of them.
The anti-tax activists have also attacked the city of Surprise, demanding that it consider a moratorium on growth and that it consider charging impact fees as have been imposed in Apache Junction to pay for new schools. Impact fees are one-time fees charged to new houses, but they are constitutionally questionable. For one thing, a family of 12 could move into an old house and not have to pay them, while a family with no children could move into a new house and have to. Surprise officials thought they would tax potential homeowners out of the market. Furthermore, school districts and municipalities are separate jurisdictions, making it difficult to pass monies between them. And unlike Apache Junction, the school and city boundaries of Dysart and Surprise do not coincide.
City officials also told the new anti-tax school board that impact fees would not generate enough money to build schools in a timely manner.
"They did not believe it," says Mayor Shaefer. "Mr. Koch wanted to turn around and pay $1,500 to bring in an authority on impact fees. Now here's a school district that's crying that they have no money to put doors on the rest rooms in a school [an issue the new board members brought up]: $1,500 could cover a lot of doors, couldn't it?"
The Reverend Mitchell Eickmann, one of the holdovers from the old school board, says, "Koch's idea is always to make somebody else pay. If a plan came up that we could make the state of New Mexico responsible for our funding, he would be for it."
Koch, on the other hand, rightfully points to the district's desire that the retirees stay out of school issues altogether.
"They keep telling us they don't want us on the school board," he says. "All they want us to do is pay our taxes and keep our mouths shut. That's all Del Webb wants us to do. On the other hand, with the application of democracy, we got three members on the board. They don't like that. But the point is, if we stay in the district, we stay on the school board. If they let us out, then we're not on the school board anymore and they can do what they want."
From there the battle gets dogmatic and emotional.
"I think it's more of a belief than an emotional thing," says Pam Justice, the other holdover Dysart school board member. "I think people believe across these United States that it's everybody's responsibility to educate kids and nobody should be able to vote themselves out of that tax responsibility. I think that's the issue. It gets emotional because it is an American belief system."
Mitch Eickmann recalls that when he took office on the Dysart school board in January 1994, the meetings already buzzed with the paranoia among certain factions of the senior community that the district was somehow hiding funds.
Eickmann sports a beard and an earring, and he speaks with the gentle manner of a pastor, which he is. He ministers to a Spanish-language congregation called Pan de vida, which means "bread of life," a reference to the metaphor and sacrament of Communion. Though he is Anglo, his wife is Hispanic, as is his parish, and in effect, he was elected as a stealth candidate.
No minority has been elected to the board since 1992, he points out, and when he ran, a Hispanic candidate posted a vigorous campaign while Eickmann did next to nothing. Then, as he relates, "when the final vote came out, I was the second-highest vote getter. Both Pam [Justice] and I scored very high in the new areas and the retired areas."
He assumes that was because they both had Anglo names.
Eickmann was board president through a series of failed bond and override elections.
School funding is broken into capital and M&O, which means "maintenance and operations," and the two budgets cannot easily be mixed. Capital, the money to build and repair schools, comes from borrowing money through bonds sold against the assessed valuation of home and business property in the district and then paid back by imposing property taxes on home and business owners. This is the system that the Arizona state Supreme Court has judged unconstitutional and ordered the Legislature to rethink.
M&O is the money that runs an annual budget, paying salaries and costs of operating a school district. It is doled out by the state according to a per-pupil formula. The more students a district has, the more M&O money it gets. And if the district feels it needs more, it can ask the voters in the district for a budget override, also paid back through property taxes.
Between 1995 and 1997, four bonds and/or override elections failed in Dysart, the first of them a $25 million bond and a $1.5 million override in March 1995.
"Immediately, they blamed it on the seniors, because the bond issue didn't pass," recalls Bill Nelson, a retired businessman whose wife Eleanor would later be elected to the board. "I didn't vote. I didn't care." But he was miffed at being blamed. "We began to look at what's going on here," he says.
The Supreme Court had already ruled against the state's practice of relying entirely on bonding to fund school construction, so it would have been unwise to pass a bond before knowing the outcome of the state's revised building funding plan. The seniors had good enough business sense to realize that.
"We'd be paying through the nose for the next 12 or 15 years," Bill Nelson continues. "And maybe next month the Legislature was going to get off its butt and have different funding to satisfy the mandate of our state's Supreme Court."
A month later, Citizens for Tax Equity took shape. The district met with the group and asked if it'd approve a lesser bond, in the amount of $10 million, and then instead, in May 1995, put another $25 million bond up for election, which also failed.
Then logic disappeared altogether. After two consecutive $25 million issues were deemed too expensive by the electorate, the board came back, in March 1996, with a new bond issue for $55 million.
The seniors were outraged and voted it down, as well. And when word spread that the seniors were voting down tax increases smaller than their annual greens fees at Sun City golf courses, even the meeker of Sun City Westers began to take umbrage and take sides.
"They're trying to make patsies of us," fumes Bill Nelson. "They're blaming us because it didn't pass, even though their people didn't get out to vote and they outnumber us four or five to one, and blaming us and calling us racists and saying we're harassing Hispanics, and all these nasty mean things. Now if you were in my shoes, would it make sense to vote for a bond issue with all this going on and with the possibility that there's going to be new financing?"
Still, the schools were increasingly in need.
"We have some big capital needs in terms of repairs at the existing schools," says Mitch Eickmann. "But there was also anticipating the growth we have in the district, anticipating at least a new elementary school."
"I definitely hold the state of Arizona responsible for some of the school-finance issues that affect the district," says superintendent Jesus de la Garza. "But it's an issue across the state. I also hold the Citizens for Tax Equity responsible for keeping us from accessing the only monies that are available through the two major avenues that we have, and that's to bond or have a budget override election."
Some perspective: Bonds may soon be moot; overrides likely will not. Last November, the Dysart district commissioned a report from the bonding firm of Peacock, Hislop, Staley & Given to show just how much those bonds and overrides would cost taxpayers, with and without deannexation.
Assuming a very conservative growth rate in assessed valuation of 10 percent per year, a $1.5 million override would cost the owner of a $100,000 house about $78.72 per year. But even if the deannexation were to go through, the same override would cost the same homeowner $127.10 per year.
If the deannexation were to go through, the amount of money that the district would be able to get through bonds would drop by current PHS&G estimates from $28 million to about $12 million. But at that 10 percent growth rate, with all the new houses anticipated in Surprise and the surrounding area, the district would still be able to afford a $20 million bond within two years, and, under the current funding system, would be able to put it out to vote this September.
Still, a $20 million bond would have cost the Sun City Westers about $61 a year on that $100,000 house. A bond and an override together would cost the homeowner a total of $139.40 per year in property taxes.
Koch demanded that the PHS&G consultant recalculate based on a 20 percent growth rate, and the amounts became even more negligible: $86 a year for bond and override together.
Whether or not the Legislature refigures school finance, these are the dollar amounts per taxpayer that have hamstrung the Dysart district.
"Since [the last bond failed] the strategy has been to say the district administration had been incompetent," Eickmann continues. "'There's plenty of money,' they say, 'they just don't know how to manage it.' The whole issue became focused on 'If we get more taxes than them, this is unjust.' But instead of addressing the Legislature, which is responsible for this tax system, the attack has always been on the school district, because it's very difficult to move the Legislature, but it's very easy to vote down everything in a school district."
It's also very democratic. The remaining, largely Hispanic Dysart community did not get out the vote.
"We have been trying very hard to get minorities to vote," says teacher Buster Estrada.
Though Surprise Mayor Joan Shaefer and city manager Dick McComb have been vocal about the schools problems, their counterparts in El Mirage have stayed away. El Mirage Mayor Maggie Reese did not return calls from New Times.
"I've been doing this for three and a half years," says Jacque Carrillo, a Dysart school district employee from El Mirage who has four children in Dysart schools. "I am more than tired of going to people's houses and explaining the situation to them. And I don't understand why they don't go out and vote. I don't know if they don't realize how much education is important to their children."
Anticipating the next attack, the school board circled the wagons and, with approval from the U.S. Justice Department, devised a ward system of representation that would ensure that members of all the various communities inside the Dysart district would have a voice. The seniors took them to court within the Arizona state court system and, at the end of March 1997, had the ward system ruled unconstitutional.
"It was legal," says Pam Justice, "and we went through a nine-month, $30,000 process to set it up through the United States Department of Justice. We got preclearance from the Department of Justice, but a paragraph within the state statute was found unconstitutional."
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.
"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!"
Jesus de la Garza is a man of extraordinary dignity, and he speaks calmly in the midst of a battle that could cost him his job. He had trusted the former district finance manager to do his job, and he and the board made the budget cuts according to the figures he provided, and he trusts Hammond to do his job as well.
"You work out a situation so that you can make the best possible decisions," he told New Times. "I've compounded the problem with my inexperience, and I accept the responsibility."
But he points out that some of the new numbers leaking out of the ledgers are apples and oranges, monies that have to be spent in certain ways--the donations, for example, come with specific requests.
"The figure that Mr. Koch came out with is incredible to me," he says. "I'm caught between two sets of figures with no way of confirming either."
The board and administration have contracted with a consulting firm to iron out the discrepancies and tell them exactly which figures are correct. For better or worse, that report will probably be finished by the March 10 election.
Robert Koch feels vindicated by the discovery--the suspicions of the senior community proved partially true--though it still doesn't justify the community's wishes to deannex. There's no telling how the recent discoveries will affect the deannexation election, if at all. It will not likely pass, though Pam Justice's recall seems certain.
Koch and Nelson and Parker all claim that they intend to stay on the board even if deannexation fails and the Legislature knocks down bonding as a finance method. That remains to be seen. They don't have an answer to what they would do if bonding remains a part of the overall package and they as board members realize that school construction can't be put off any longer and they'll have to go to their Sun City West constituencies to ask for votes and money.
"I think they realize this deannexation vote will not go through and that they're going to be stuck on that board," says Surprise Mayor Joan Shaefer. "So it's going to be, 'Let's make you as miserable as we can and we're going to prove we're right and you're wrong.'"
She calls the deannexation move "a cancer of education." In fact, the initiative is being studied by senior communities in other parts of the country.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Lisa Graham Keegan sums it up.
"We seem to be in this era now where unless it affects me personally, I'm not interested. If that's the case, you're going to have more and more Dysarts out there, more and more cases where people say, 'It's not my child and I'm not going to support this.'"
Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org