School Daze

The beleaguered Wilson Elementary School District, which recently saw two of its three board members removed from office by the state for widespread improprieties, is again being rocked by investigations and accusations charges that recently elected board members say are politically motivated.

The latest flap is a continuation of the power struggle, playing out over the last few years, that has divided the tiny district, located off Van Buren Street in the shadows of Sky Harbor.

Last fall, two of Wilson's three board members RosaMaria Sudea and Hilaria Lopez were forced to resign following an Attorney General's investigation that documented numerous violations of the state's Open Meetings law.

The third board member, Mercedes Robles, who was constantly at odds with Sudea and Lopez, was reelected in November. Also winning a board seat was Evangeline Carillo, an elderly longtime neighborhood activist who says she was compelled to run after witnessing the improprieties.

The third seat on the school board is still vacant and will be appointed by the county school superintendent.

But last week, Robles and Carillo were prohibited from taking their oaths of office by Maricopa County School superintendent Sandra Dowling. County officials say Robles and Carillo are now under investigation for election violations.

Backers of Robles and Carillo fear that the ousted board members and their supporters, including a powerful teachers' union, are behind the new investigations and are attempting to get the county to simply take over the school.

Meanwhile, the Wilson District finds itself in jeopardy of failing to comply with a court-sanctioned agreement that could potentially reverse hundreds of thousands of dollars in improperly awarded contracts and possibly reinstate superintendent Roger Romero.

Last year, over objections from Robles, Sudea and Lopez made illegal purchases, hired and fired staff members, and suspended Romero, who, in his decade at Wilson, had managed to provide a computer for every student and saw test scores rise from the midteens to near 70 percent, in a district where 30 percent of the children are homeless.

Romero accomplished this, Robles says, by demanding that teachers be held accountable for their students' performances, and installed a thrice-yearly series of performance reviews. This ruffled more than a few feathers among some senior faculty members, says Robles.

Romero "made them show up on time and stay until the end of the day," says Robles. "They had to have lesson plans; we increased the school year to 180 days and established a mentorship program."

She says that some tenured teachers resented the changes and began lobbying for Romero's removal, receiving support from the Arizona Education Association as well as Sudea and Lopez, who suspended Romero last spring. That meeting has been determined to be illegal by the AG's office because it violated the Open Meetings law.

In fact, the AG's investigation found Sudea and Lopez to have violated state law dozens of times, largely for making decisions among themselves without open discussion at public sessions and for holding meetings that were not properly advertised, giving the public little chance to attend. Public documents detailing how money was being spent and other decisions made were withheld from people who asked for them.

Sudea and Lopez were forced to resign, fined $600 and banned from political office for two years. Decisions made during the illegal meetings, including the suspension of Romero, are subject to revision by the new board, under the detailed consent agreement reached with the AG's office.

The agreement outlines a number of conditions Wilson must abide by and imposes a specific time frame. Wilson's first deadline is January 31.

But meeting that deadline became unlikely last week, when Robles and Carillo were not allowed to take their oaths of office at a swearing-in ceremony on January 6.

At first, Robles says, she and Carillo were told they hadn't RSVP'd in time to make the caterer's count. "I told them, Fine, we won't eat, but can we still get sworn in?'"

She says she was still told no and was advised to seek legal counsel.

Instead, Robles and Carillo swore their oaths in front of a notary the day before the ceremony and faxed them to Dowling's office.

Robles and Carillo attended the ceremony anyway, raising their hands and repeating their oaths along with 20 other new board members. But they weren't allowed to sign their certificates and were given no explanation, they say.

Then, a fax from Deputy County Attorney Jill Kennedy to Robles on January 8 warned the women that holding a board meeting would be in violation of the law. "Please note that the records of the County School Superintendent do not reflect execution or receipt of the oath of office by a person authorized to administer oaths to Wilson School District governing board members," it read.

Robles is frustrated. "They keep making us jump through hoops, and all we want to do is get back to business."

Calls to Dowling's office were referred to Kennedy. Kennedy says that she was under the impression that Robles and Carillo had sworn their oaths before a notary the day before the ceremony but had neglected to turn those oaths over to the proper official for recording by the county.

Thus, Robles' and Carillo's appearance at the ceremony (accompanied by supporters, some of whom stood outside the county building with signs reading "Lies, lies, lies") was "real strange," Kennedy says.

She referred further inquiries to Bill FitzGerald, a spokesman for the County Attorney's office. But he refused to comment beyond saying that his office was investigating election improprieties.

This latest affront is just one more step in what Robles and some community members believe is the county's master plan of taking over the tiny yet lucrative district and replacing duly elected board members with more malleable appointees. The district, many of whose students are low-income, sits in a largely industrial area, which provides it with one of the largest tax bases in the state.

Former board member Pete Ruiz suspects that the county "may be planning to come in, take over and annex us to Phoenix Elementary. They can't control us, and they're annoyed."

But others say Wilson has struggled long enough, and circumstances are ideal for a takeover by the county, which they argue would be better able to address the needs of the district than those elected by its residents.

Arizona Education Association president Penny Kotterman strongly supports such action. The AEA is Arizona's largest professional organization and, with 30,000 members, is a lobbying force to reckon with.

The AEA has complained often and loudly about Robles and the Wilson district. The Attorney General investigated Robles in 1999 for allegations that she pilfered school property and sold it at yard sales, used district funds to fly herself and her boyfriend to Maui, and unduly influenced the Christmas in April program to renovate her mother's house. The case was closed, and no charges were ever filed against Robles, who characterizes the accusations as a "personal vendetta" stemming from her support of Romero and the complaints against Sudea and Lopez.

Kotterman, who has served as AEA president for the past five years, says Wilson has been problematic since she took office, and the situation is only increasing in intensity.

"This district has a long history of difficulty in relationships between staff, teachers, support employees, the community and the governing body," Kotterman says, adding that fear of harassment and intimidation have community members and district employees scared to speak out, should their opinions differ from those of the governing board.

In Kotterman's view, the most logical answer to the problems plaguing Wilson is for an outside agency to take control. Intervention and repair are sorely needed, she believes.

"Let the county run the district for a while until solutions are reached and processes are in place to help governing board members work collaboratively with parents and the community," Kotterman says. "I would suggest bringing in outside expertise and electing a governing board that is truly supportive of the district."

And that makes Robles mad. "If you're not here for the children, you shouldn't be here," she says. "Since when does the county have the authority to circumvent the will of the people?"

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Susy Buchanan