Maria Inés Taracena
State Sen. Steve Farley.
State Sen. Steve Farley and state Reps. Sally Ann Gonzales and Victoria Steele attended the Tucson Unified School District board meeting this evening to give a legislative update on a bill that seeks to defund desegregation programs at several state school districts, including TUSD, which would take the "biggest hit" at $64 million cut from the annual budget.
While Farley, who is a TUSD parent, expressed his discontent at the fact that TUSD board member Michael Hicks sent a letter to legislators urging them to pass that bill, Hicks stood up and, pretty much, threw a handout on the podium and told Farley to read it, which the state senator did not. But it wasn't until Farley suggested Hicks to resign his position that the board member lost it.
He slammed his chair and mumbled that he was leaving, but then less than 10 seconds later he changed his mind. "You know what, I'm not leaving," Hicks said while some meeting attendees laughed at his shenanigans.
On Feb. 11, SB 1371 passed a Senate Finance Committee hearing, which TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez attended to defend the hell of the desegregation programs' funding. The committee's chairwoman, state Sen. Debbie Lesko, who is also the sponsor of the bill, agreed to add an amendment accommodating to TUSD's special needs, according to a phone interview I had with Sanchez while he drove back to Tucson from Phoenix that afternoon. The district still has to obey a federal court order and is under the Unitary Status Plan. Sanchez says without those funds, the programs they offer to reach unitary status wouldn't survive.
Farley thanked Sanchez for attending the hearing.
But, "Our purpose was undercut severely when I noticed that one of your board members, Mr. Hicks had signed in a testimony to the members of the committee asking for the bill to pass, asking us to cut $64 million from our own district," Farley said. "Giving comfort to those who would shut down public education in Arizona, and, in my mind, compromised his oath of office to protect and defend the students, teachers and parents of (TUSD)..."
Right in the middle of that, Hicks stood up and grabbed that handout or sign I mentioned earlier.
"You do not believe that your oath of office for the TUSD board involves protecting and defending students and parents of the district? You have damaged those efforts, and frankly Mr. Hicks, your signs are cute, but if you are going to damage our children like this, you are not for kids and I believe you should resign your position," Farley continued. The crowd started clapping.
Hicks said that was an attack not a legislative update like it was described on the meeting's agenda.
Before Farley arrived, Hicks had already gotten it during the call to the audience, including one of the attendees who said Hicks wants to screw children in low-income neighborhoods out of a good education. And someone else called Hicks a racist.
When it was time for board members to respond to criticism, Hicks had an essay to read.
He thanked the speakers who shared their views.
"I do support the concept of schools receiving desegregation funding, what I don't support is the mismanagement and the misappropriation of the desegregation funding that TUSD has been receiving for over 30 years...but I am more than willing to compromise on this issue," Hicks said. But right in the middle of his remarks, the speakers in the room mysteriously let out a very loud noise that sounded like a phone off the hook or like when you call someone and the line is busy.
"Really?" Hicks said. He kept reading but that noise was quite loud until nearly the end of Hicks' defense so I'm unclear of how that ended.
He tried to argue that while he is outside, in the real world, he had been told that he is not representing the board. However, the note he sent to legislators supporting the bill was signed, "TUSD Board Member Michael Hicks."
"We always represent TUSD because that is the oath that we took," TUSD Clerk Kristel Foster said.
The bill isn't due for a vote for now. Farley said the process on that has slowed down, but until the state Legislature officially kills the bill, it means that it could get picked up again any time.
"This is a bill being pushed by the Arizona Tax Research Association. ATRA is funded entirely by the big utilities...their entire purpose is to reduce property tax burden from their funders," said Farley, a member of the Senate Finance Committee. (The TUSD desegregation money comes from a local property tax.) "You might want to have a word with (Tucson Electric Power) as to why they are supporting this effort to undercut school districts...they do this in a number of bills that come forward every year and they are not concerned with the effects of reducing this funding."
(Added after publication) The Goldwater Institute is also behind the legislation, and at the meeting, Farley said the group wants to get rid of public schools and base education completely on private institutions.
Democratic state Reps. Stefanie Mach, Bruce Wheeler , Randy Friese and a few others called into the meeting to also weigh in on the issue.
From the $64 million TUSD gets for desegregation programs, about $11 million go to magnet schools' programs, students outreach and recruiting services. Then there's about $8 million for things like translation and interpretation (ESL, etc.); another close to $8 million go to drop-out prevention and programs that aim to close the academic achievement gap.