The county's second-largest district with some 16,000 students, Amphi stretches from blue-collar neighborhoods near Stone Avenue and Grant Road to the pink tile roofs of Oro Valley. That puts the district smack dab in the center of the fastest growth in Pima County. In the 1990s, Amphi saw its student body increase by 25 percent, and the strains are apparent: books and other materials are stretched thin, particularly at Canyon Del Oro High School, where about 3,000 students are jamming a campus designed to handle 2,200 kids.
As Amphi has struggled to keep pace with its expanding needs, the governing board has bitterly split over many of the issues, from school schedules to board meeting policies. As if all that isn't enough, the district got caught up in the first courtroom battle over protecting the habitat of local endangered species when it tried to build a new high school on land bordering a nesting cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. Although the district would ultimately prevail in court, the battle set construction back by more than two years, and cost the district more than a million dollars in legal fees and related costs.
The end result has been a political passion play that reaches its denouement on May 16, when voters in the district will go to the polls to decide whether to replace the current ruling majority of Gary Woodard, Richard Scott and Virginia Houston with challengers Mary Schuh, Kent Barrabee and Mike Prout.
How did things spiral so far out of control?
A HULKING BUILDING sits on a little more than eight acres of land owned by the Amphi School District along Desert Sky Road. The building has languished, unused, since its purchase at $1 million in 1996 from the Newmont Mining Company. Although the district originally planned to use the property for administrative purposes, a later survey revealed it would require more than three-quarters of a million dollars in renovations. In 1998, Amphi voters agreed to allow the district to sell the property. Although Amphi officials have said numerous buyers have shown interest in the property, the district has yet to unload it.
Amphi's critics -- including three candidates seeking to oust the ruling majority of the Amphi Board -- point to the Desert Sky Road property as a typical example of waste in the district.
The parcel was one of several properties haphazardly purchased by the district with bond funds in the mid-'90s. Amphi was represented in these real-estate transactions by Bill Arnold, a politically connected real-estate wheeler-dealer who earned more than $150,000 working for the district between 1992 and 1996. The only broker invited to bid on this lucrative contract, Arnold was pals with Vicki Cox-Golder, the Catalina real-estate empress who sat on Amphi's board at the time.
Under Arizona's lax real-estate laws, the cozy arrangement was perfectly legal. The contract neatly avoided state law requiring an open bid for contracts by forcing sellers, rather than Amphi, to pay Arnold's commission. Under that arrangement, as it worked out, Arnold was free to negotiate his own fee; on a flat percentage basis, of course, the higher the price of the property, the higher Arnold's commission.
In the autumn of 1996, after wrestling with the district for months over the release of public records, The Weekly published an investigative report that showed that two 1994 Amphi purchases, which were never appraised, sold for significantly more per acre than nearby parcels.
Arnold was busy managing Cox-Golder's unsuccessful 1996 bid for the District 3 Board of Supervisors seat when Amphi administrators withheld numerous documents relating to his compensation for these real-estate transactions. As it turned out, before the district could release the records, they had to retrieve copies of them from Arnold, who managed to make a few hundred dollars as a result of the request by charging $95 per hour to review his files.
In December 1996, The Weekly uncovered a pending land deal the district had kept secret despite numerous public records requests. The district planned to purchase 39 acres on the corner of Moore and La Cañada roads from a partnership that included Charles Townsdin, the single largest contributor to Cox-Golder's supervisorial campaign. The deal had Amphi paying $665,000 for the property, or about $17,000 an acre. (The property had been appraised at $16,000 an acre.) Arnold's commission would have been $23,275.
There was only one slight problem: the land bordered La Cholla Air Park, an exclusive enclave that features a community runway for residents who own small planes. In a memo to board members that was withheld from The Weekly for more than a year, Amphi Associate Superintendent Katie Frey, who worked with Arnold on the land deals, recommended the district find another property: "I advise the district to cancel the purchase agreement for the land parcel at Moore Road and La Cañada and to explore other sites that would be more suitable for a future middle school."
Ignoring her concerns, the board continued with the plan to purchase the property. But when news of the pending deal broke, angry parents packed a board meeting and forced the district to back out of the deal. (Months later, the parcel was sold for $11,972 an acre, for a total of approximately $468,000 -- at least $200,000 less than Amphi was prepared to pay.)
Shortly after the Moore Road deal collapsed, Amphi declined to renew its contract with Arnold and established a new land-acquisition process.
"There's a lot of debate about, gee, is it best for a school district to buy through a secret escrow, or is it better to avoid that process and let everybody know what you're looking at and take whatever risk from that -- that the price of the property is going to go up," district attorney Todd Jaeger told The Weekly as the new policy was being formulated in 1997. "I think it's generally better to have all the constituencies and all the shareholders, as they're called, involved from the start. You try to keep it as confidential as possible in terms of the negotiation process with the eventual seller, but I just don't know if those secret escrows are all they're cracked up to be."
IN THE WAKE of the collapsed land deal, Amphi politics began a dramatic shift. Cox-Golder's seat was taken by Nancy Young Wright, a well-known activist who had fought to preserve Honey Bee Canyon and to create more parks in Oro Valley. That reputation helped her carry the day with 27.4 percent of the vote -- more than anyone else in the race, including incumbents Virginia Houston and Richard Scott.
In her first term on the board (Wright's up for re-election in November), she's tangled with her colleagues almost constantly. Even before she took office, she recalls an intimidating meeting with Amphi Superintendent Bob Smith and two board members, Richard Scott (who is targeted in this month's recall) and Mike Bernal (who was tossed out of office by voters in 1998).
"They gave me a little lecture at the end of the day," Wright remembers. "It was an attempt to put me in my place, is what it felt like. They said, 'Some board members in other districts cause so much trouble they have to be censured. You wouldn't want to see that here, would you?' "
But Wright didn't go along to get along. Instead, she began asking questions about the land deals and other constituent concerns, only to find her inquiries ignored or rebuffed.
In an attempt to corral Wright, Bernal dialed up district attorney Barry Corey, who charged the district nearly $4,000 to write a letter outlining the responsibilities of a school board member. Bernal forwarded the correspondence to Wright, along with a letter chastising her for sticking her nose in district business.
These were tense days, but skirmishes on a school board rarely make for front-page news. The infighting might have remained a quiet sidelight to the clanging machinations of city and county government had it not been for one small thing -- or, more accurately, one small bird named Bleepy by one of his neighbors.
Bleepy was one of the few cactus ferruginous pygmy owls known to the Arizona Game and Fish Department, which began monitoring the bird's nest in 1993, one year after the Center for Biological Diversity (the litigious environmental organization formerly known as the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity) petitioned the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to put the owl on the endangered species list. As luck would have it, Bleepy's territory was immediately adjacent to one of the properties that Amphi purchased without an appraisal or environmental assessment in 1994.
In 1997, the same year the pygmy owl was officially listed as endangered, district officials began planning construction on the new high school. In February, Fish and Wildlife officials gave Amphi administrators the bad news: their construction plans were likely to run afoul of the Endangered Species Act.
Amphi administrators, with the support of board members Bernal and Woodard, spent the next year wrangling with federal officials. Despite her repeated requests to be included in the discussions, Wright was frozen out of the process. She warned that proceeding with construction would result in a lengthy legal fight, but the four-member majority pushed ahead nonetheless.
After abandoning a complex consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Amphi administrators gave the order to begin clearing the land in March 1998. The district was immediately hauled into federal court by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Defenders of Wildlife, two environmental organizations who teamed up to stop the project. U.S. District Court Judge Frank Zapata halted construction while the case was hashed out in court.
Although Zapata ruled in Amphi's favor in the spring of 1998, the environmental groups managed to get a federal appeals court to issue an injunction which postponed construction until the case could be heard in San Francisco. In November 1999, after more than a year of deliberation, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Amphi's favor and gave the go-ahead for construction. More than two years behind schedule, Amphi is now building the school.
In the process, the district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, as well as hundreds of thousands more in related costs (including a purchase of additional land to reconfigure the school and round-the-clock security guards on the property.)
Mike Prout, the UA space science project manager who is running against board member Virginia Houston, criticizes Amphi officials for failing to obtain an appraisal or an environmental survey before purchasing the property.
"The board didn't do their homework," Prout says. "That would be the charitable way to put it. It's at least unethical, some of the things that have happened. Or at least incredibly ignorant."
THE PYGMY OWL battle was the highest-profile battle within the district -- and one that Woodard points to as the flashpoint in the recall effort.
"You have to realize this recall effort was kicked off the day after we made a vote to continue to build the high school at the Shannon and Naranja site," Woodard said in a recent radio interview. "The people behind the recall would like you to believe it is about other issues, but the timing sure looks suspicious. It's all about the high school, and the bigger issue is about growth on the northwest side. There are a lot of people who live out there and like the ambience, love the desert, and growth is affecting their quality of life...overall, growth is negatively impacting a lot of these people. So they would like to manage or stop growth, or control or slow growth, that's fine. Slower growth is going to make our job on the school board easier. I don't think I was elected to the school board to use my position on the board to control growth by having a classroom crisis. And that seems to be what this is all about."
Many of the district's critics are upset about the runaway growth in the district -- growth, they complain, that Amphi officials encouraged by promoting the district to Raytheon employees and other newcomers to Pima County. They also point to the tendency of Amphi officials to assure the Pima County Board of Supervisors that the district had plenty of classroom space when rezonings were on the table.
But the three recall candidates say their concerns go beyond the growth issue. And they emphatically deny Woodard's charge that they would stop construction of the new high school. In interviews and public appearances, all three say they support continuing construction at the site, although they find Amphi officials' lack of due diligence to be appalling.
Environmental issues were the last thing on Diana Boros' mind when she began tangling with the board. The mother of three kids in the Amphi District, Boros was volunteering in classrooms when she realized that the district was desperately short on teaching supplies. She teamed up with other parents with similar concerns and formed an advocacy group, Students First, which criticized district administrators for taking raises while classroom resources were stretched thin.
Boros wanted to address the full board about the problems teachers were facing, but she discovered the district had no open call-to-the-audience segment. Amphi Board meetings had once had such a segment, but the district had quietly abandoned the policy in the early 1980s, although the board did allow citizens to speak about items on the agenda.
That wasn't enough for Boros, who believed the board should have an open ear to constituents. "Over the years, we have definitely lost our input," said Boros. "We wanted to restore the call to the audience, so the people we voted for understood that we are concerned about our children's education. It's really the only time you can speak to all five board members at one time without violating the quorum. You should be able to speak to any issue you like, as long as it's not a personnel issue or slanderous, of course."
Boros banded with other parents to lobby for an open call and began an informal petition drive, collecting nearly 500 signatures at ball games and other after-school activities.
Although Woodard told Boros he didn't support her effort, Bernal promised he would put it on the agenda. Then came the stall -- months rolled by as Bernal told Boros the Board was too busy with the pygmy owl crisis to address the call-to-the-audience issue.
When Bernal finally agreed to put the issue on the agenda, Boros mailed letters to all the people who had signed petitions, urging them to attend the meeting on May 12, 1998. It turned out to be a big waste of her postage money, because on May 11, 1998, Boros got a letter in the mail from Bernal informing her that he had postponed the discussion for another month. When that day finally rolled around, the board majority took no action to create an open call to the audience.
Given this sort of appalling behavior, it's no wonder that Bernal's political career came to an abrupt halt five months later, in November 1998, when voters bounced Bernal from the board in favor of Ken Smith, a retired UA professor and a fierce critic of the ruling majority. Smith easily outpaced both Woodard and Bernal, capturing 38 percent of the vote. With two open seats, Woodard was able to hang onto office with 32 percent.
But Bernal's defeat didn't register on the Amphi majority, now down to Woodard, Scott and Houston. They continued in their opposition to an open call, going so far as to again turn to attorney Barry Corey, who billed the district $6,000 for a shaky legal opinion which concluded that an open call to the audience (which occurs as a matter of course at meetings of government jurisdictions throughout the state) could actually be considered a violation of the state's open meeting law. The attorney general's office wasted no time in overturning Corey's opinion.
Without a legal leg to stand on, the board majority finally caved to public pressure and voted to allow an open call during the board meetings in April 1999.
But the acrimony on the board continued to grow. During one memorable meeting, Houston told Wright she'd like to shake her "like a rag doll."
AS BOARD INFIGHTING intensified, so did tensions between the administration and teachers, who were growing increasingly vocal about their paychecks.
Class sizes were growing, resources were stretched thin and teachers were lucky to see even token raises. Meanwhile, Superintendent Robert Smith -- known around the district as "Bubba" -- had a Midas touch with the governing board.
Smith left behind a brief career in law enforcement when he entered the education field in the late 1970s. After earning his teaching credentials, Smith spent two years teaching physical education. But he wasn't going to stay in the gym for long; as soon as he could, he jumped on the administration career track. In his administration application, he was able to convince the state Department of Education to allow him to substitute a combination of other teaching experience -- including scattered instruction of classes like "personal growth and development," interscholastic phys. ed., and summer-session weight training -- for a full year of teaching experience.
Smith jumped from an associate superintendent position to superintendent when former Amphi Superintendent Rick Wilson retired in May 1996. His pay jumped as well, from $70,000 to $87,000. In the next year and half, he'd see his income rapidly climb; by December 1997, he was earning $94,175. In addition, he received at least $6,800 in bonuses (including a $2,807 bonus just three months after he assumed the superintendent's position) before bonus incentives were stripped from his contract in exchange for a $5,000 annual raise.
In addition, Smith controls an $8,200 expense account and has a car allowance valued at $6,400. He also earns close to $400 for each vacation day he does not take.
Smith's salary has long been a sore point among Amphi's underpaid teachers. Last September, when negotiations between the union and district officials produced a 3 percent raise, teachers began to openly rebel. After several sickouts and a student march on administration headquarters, the board backed down and offered teachers a 5 percent raise. The ink was barely dry on the agreement when Smith was caught in another financial scandal in the headlines of the morning daily.
The Amphitheater Extension Program was a non-profit offshoot of the district that provided preschool and after-school daycare and activities for kids.
AEP, as it's known around the district, is funded through fees rather than tax dollars. Bob Smith, who sits on AEP's board of directors along with recall targets Houston and Scott, created his own expense budget within AEP that totaled $7,000 in 1998. Smith used that fund for parties, celebrations and retreats for board members when, as he told reporter Tony Davis, it would be inappropriate to spend tax dollars.
More than $2,230 in AEP funds was spent on two retreats for staff and board members at Westward Look Resort, including food and drinks. More than $1,300 was spent on a Christmas party at the administration office. Another $200 was spent on a farewell party for Bernal after voters soundly rejected him in 1998.
Wright says disgruntled AEP employees, upset by low wages and rising tuition costs, complained to her about the slush fund.
"They were spending money on things they shouldn't be spending money on," Wright says. "Daycare money on open bars at Westward Look, daycare money on platters of shrimp, and these same people were having to raise tuition for low-income and middle-income people. They knew that the workers weren't getting raises, and these people were spending money this way. It gives you some insight into their minds."
As the AEP story broke in the local media, Bob Smith decided he'd had enough atop the Amphi District. On October 6, 1999, he told the board he would resign in June 2000. He'll be eligible for a golden parachute payment of roughly $97,000.
TWO MONTHS AFTER Bob Smith's retirement announcement, in November 1999, Ken Smith arrived home from visiting his mother in Arkansas to find a fax from Pima County Superintendent of Schools Anita Lohr, who demanded his resignation.
Todd Jaeger, who serves as the governing board's counsel, notified Lohr that Smith's wife Barbara was working for the district.
Lohr alleged that Ken Smith wasn't legally entitled to his seat because state law forbids school board members from having spouses on their district payroll. Barbara Smith served the district 20 days a year in a variety of roles, ranging from office volunteer to substitute teacher, as part of the early retirement program she agreed to enter in 1996 after her 17-year Amphi career. Too bad, according to Lohr, a Republican who was leaving the county office after 30 years. She forwarded Jaeger's inquiry -- really a complaint -- to the County Attorney's office, which took up a zealous effort to throw Smith off the Amphi board.
But that drive has been slowed -- at considerable expense to Smith -- by Bill Risner and Anthony Ching, the lawyers who say Amphi's own records show that Barbara Smith is not a current district employee, and that any pay she receives now is based on her past service.
Ken Smith has been sidelined since the move by Jaeger, Lohr and Deputy County Attorney Paula Wilk. He remains on the board but does not vote, pending the outcome of the legal challenge. The last of three hearings, stretched over several months, ended March 27. Smith is awaiting a final decision by Judge Kenneth Lee of Pima County Superior Court.
The allegations of potential nepotism are particularly amusing to the district's critics, given Amphi's own history of favoritism.
The district hired Chad Wilson in 1995, despite the fact that he had no teaching certificate and hadn't managed to maintain the minimum 3.0 grade-point-average required in his major. At the time, Chad Wilson was the son of Rick Wilson, the district's then-superintendent.
District officials told a reporter from the morning daily that the younger Wilson was accepted over 25 other applicants with better records because he received "rave reviews" from his principal -- who happened to be Robert Smith, who succeeded Wilson as district superintendent in 1996. Despite those rave teaching reviews, Chad Wilson didn't stay in the classroom for long. He's already in administration, working as an assistant to the principal at Cross Middle School.
Amphi's purchasing department is headed by Hazel Houston, daughter of longtime board member Virginia Houston, earning an annual salary of $43,660.
And before voters tossed out Bernal, Amphi officials repeatedly hired his son, Oscar Bernal, for temporary positions.
THE RECALL TARGETS seem shocked to be facing an election later this month. Amphi administrators tried to pressure newly appointed Pima County Superintendent of Public Instruction Linda Arzoumanian to postpone the election until September, but Arzoumanian set the date for May. After that gambit failed, the majority turned to the courts, arguing that the petitions were invalid. They lost there as well, when Judge John Kelly said the plaintiffs had waited too long to file their challenge.
Both Woodard nor Houston declined to talk to The Weekly. In a recent forum, Houston lamented the political unrest, saying Amphi has come to a "sad day," while Woodard dismissed his political critics as "screwballs."
Scott blames Wright and Ken Smith as the root of the problems in the district. Philosophical differences that split the board, Scott says, have been wide enough to cause deep acrimony, image problems, and ultimately, the recall.
Mike Prout, who is facing Houston, says he never intended to launch a political career, but felt like he had no choice.
"I'm sick of the current board's method of doing business," Prout says. "I've seen it from the macro view of what it's done to the district, and what it's doing to the teachers and what it's doing to the schools. And I've seen it from a personal view, of what some of the decisions have done to my own children."
Schuh echoes his comments, complaining that the board has failed to keep an eye on the administration.
"Once you abdicate your oversight, there's only one way it can go, and that's down," says Schuh. "I want my district back."