MARY SCHUH & KEN SMITH BELIEVE THEY'RE LEAVING AMPHI BETTER THAN THEY FOUND IT - The Explorer: Import

MARY SCHUH & KEN SMITH BELIEVE THEY'RE LEAVING AMPHI BETTER THAN THEY FOUND IT

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Posted: Thursday, January 16, 2003 12:00 am | Updated: 7:47 am, Thu Mar 24, 2011.

There is little doubt that the Amphitheater Public Schools district changed during the tenure of recently retired governing boardmembers Mary Schuh and Ken Smith. After years of what critics decried as fiscal irresponsibility, backroom dealings and nepotism, a board that some felt had become little more than a rubber stamp for superintendents Richard Wilson and Robert Smith was brought back to respectability through the efforts of Smith, elected in 1998, and Schuh, elected as part of the 2000 recall election.

But whether the overall effect of their service was positive or negative depends on who is asked.

"It is difficult to say if the change has been good or bad since Ken Smith and Mary Schuh," said former Amphi Education Association President Hank Rowe. "In a lot of ways, I see a lot of the same. The main issues that were included under the recall election -- fiscal responsibility, having more than a few key people at Wetmore make the decisions -- in those ways, nothing has really changed."

Andy Morales, a PE teacher at Rio Vista Elementary School, disagreed.

"Our leaders are more academically recognized both in and out of Amphi (now). The hiring practices and purchasing practices are more sound and legal," Morales said. "People are freer to voice their opinions and there is not always a negative atmosphere."

And Rhonda Ball, a first-grade teacher at Mesa Verde Elementary School, said, "Whether (Smith and Schuh) had a positive effect really depends on who you ask and where they are in the salary schedule."

In 1999, a faction of parents, teachers and taxpayers in Amphi's district had been galvanized by Smith and fellow boardmember Nancy Young Wright who continually questioned the status quo in the district. As revelations concerning questionable land purchases, procurement violations and administrative perks came to light, board meetings began resembling something off the Jerry Springer Show. Police were called in to maintain control and television cameras were commonplace. The Tucson Weekly referred to the board as "moronic" and the Tucson Citizen called it "dysfunctional."

There was talk of a recall and parents approached Schuh about running. She had been appointed to a temporary district budget advisory committee and during committee meetings, Schuh discovered that Amphi -- suffering from abysmal teacher salaries and crowded classrooms - was spending thousands of dollars on administrative perks.

"At one meeting I was going over the line-item budget and saw the travel and I told Mr. (Richard) Scott he had more miles on him than a World War II jeep," Schuh said, with characteristic bluntness. "It was ridiculous. They had a governing board budget of $87,000 and they were asking to take 1 percent off of each school's budget. I asked them to take money off the board's budget."

The final incident that convinced her to run came late one Tuesday after a contentious board meeting. Board Vice President Gary Woodard was being interviewed outside the boardroom at the Wetmore Administration Building, defending the $87,000 board budget.

"He was telling the TV cameras that the people who were upset about the money were 'nothing but a handful of malcontents,'" Schuh said. "That was my moment. I thought, 'I've got one nerve left, Mr. Woodard, and you're standing on it.' He made my skin crawl. The old board annoyed the living daylights out of me … if you watched what happened, you discovered that things just happened without any discussion or debate. No one was allowed to question."

At 71, the bespectacled Smith said that "don't ask" atmosphere was what got him interested in the school board.

"People were concerned with the way the district was going," Smith said. "It appeared to be being run secretly with no one outside of central staff having any idea what was going on. The books were closed, there was no open call to the audience, there was simply no way to question or check on what these people were doing."

The recall election was held May 16, 2000, after incumbents Woodard, Scott and Virginia Houston tried unsuccessfully three times to get it nullified by the courts. Schuh beat Woodard by 11 percent of the vote, Michael Prout beat Houston by 32 percent and Kent Barrabee ousted Scott by 24 percent.

With that election, Smith and Young Wright went from being minority board members to part of a fairly unified board and Smith and Schuh became, in short order, the "elders" of the group. The pair retired in December, neither wanting to pursue another term and both feeling they had accomplished what they set out to do.

"The biggest thing we had to do has been done," Smith said.

"We opened up the (budget) processes in the district to the employees and the public. We cut administrative fat, we got open call to the audience. It is time for other voices."

Schuh agreed.

"I'm 68 now and I'd be 72 when the next term is over. That is ridiculous -- it is simply too old," she said. "You must have other people get involved in the operation. When you're my age, it is time to go home, play at your computer and get involved in life. You have no business being in public office."

Born in Newton, Kan., Schuh has a no-nonsense approach about her that recalls a country upbringing and a husky voice that belies years of smoking unfiltered cigarettes. She said she comes from a family of pioneering women, females who thumbed their nose at tradition and pursued college educations, advanced degrees and civil rights. They were "women who spoke their minds" and there's no doubt Schuh is cut from the same cloth. Activism is part of her DNA, she said, having been raised by James and Elizabeth Wheeler "to stand up for what I believed in." She was one of the first women admitted to the pre-law club at Kansas State University and the first woman elected an officer of the same.

She eventually switched her major to education and, after marrying James Schuh, finished her degree at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. She raised five children and did substitute teaching in Amphi during the late '60's and early '70's.

Her fans appreciate her stinging barbs, but the people and political entities on the receiving end value them less.

"They know I follow the money," Schuh said of her run-ins with various taxing bodies in the Northwest. "They don't necessarily like the questions I ask."

That was especially true of the recalled Amphitheater Gover-ning Board.

"Mary is so skilled at analyzing budgets, she was exactly what we needed, but not what they wanted," said Young Wright of the old board's reaction to Schuh. "She is the doyenne of Pima County budgets. She would look at their budget and point out the irresponsibility."

A Republican "and proud of it," Schuh said she worked on a number of political campaigns, but never aspired to political office herself. Nonetheless, she was elected chairwoman of her precinct (at the time, precinct 30) and served for 12 years. She was also president of the Pima County Association of Taxpayers and was appointed to the short-lived Casas Adobes Town Council.

Like Schuh, Smith was no stranger to boat-rocking when elected to the Amphi board in 1998. He had been the chairman of the Committee of 11, the original University of Arizona faculty governance organization, which was, in his words, "the bane of the administration's existence." The committee was responsible for the closing of the Arizona International College, exposing that "it was enormously expensive and had no recognizable curriculum," Smith said.

That experience, mixed with legislative activism and his background in education --he taught high school English in Missouri, was a reading specialist in New York and taught at Kent State, Illinois State and the University of Miami before coming to the UA in 1968 to head the reading department -- made Smith a natural choice for school district reform advocates.

"Ken had a couple of things going for him -- his being retired from the education department at the UA and having a lot of good connections at the Legislature," said Aspen Green, who became Smith's campaign manager. "I had four kids in the school district at the time, and I went to board meetings and saw how it operated. Amphi was the joke of (Tucson). The board was, in my opinion, corrupt, and we were trying to get new blood on it. Ken's education background, his sensibility and his intelligence made him the perfect match."

Smith's election to the board -- replacing longtime member Mike Bernal -- was welcomed by much of the public and the Amphitheater Education Association, because he promised to make a copy of the budget available to teachers during negotiations.

"That's what we do now," said Smith. "Nothing is secret, whereas before it was. Teachers thought they were being lied to and often, they were. But now there is no longer anything to discuss about what is available because (AEA) gets a copy of the budget."

His election was not, however, welcomed by the administration or remaining majority of the board. One year into his four-year term, Smith found himself asked to resign by then Pima County Superintendent of Schools Anita Lohr, who was responding to a complaint by Amphi legal counsel Todd Jaeger that Smith's sitting on the board was illegal because his wife Barbara was an Amphi teacher.

Barbara Smith had taken the district's early retirement package three years before Smith was elected to the board, having taught reading at both Nash Elementary and Cross Middle schools. As part of the early retirement program in the district, employees volunteer in the district for 20 days per year until they reach age 65 as a condition for receiving their district retirement benefits.

"The basis they were using for the lawsuit was ridiculous," Smith recalled. "Our (Amphitheater) own human resources department had written the (Internal Revenue Service) several letters pointing out that (early retirees) were no longer employees. And here our legal counsel and the administration was saying Barbara was an employee to try to get me off the board."

Jaeger did not return calls for comment.

After six months of legal wrangling and $8,000 in personal expenses, Smith was cleared by Pima County Superior Court Judge Kenneth Lee to stay on the board when Lee ruled that Barbara Smith fulfilling her retirement obligations did not constitute being employed by Amphi.

"It was a very stressful time," Smith said. "The superintendent (Robert Smith) and no one the board except for Nancy Young Wright ever spoke a pleasant word to me the first two years I was on the board. During the whole legal fight, there was nothing but malice."

Current boardmember Kent Barrabee concurred.

"It was sick," he said. "There was real pathology in the district and it is amazing the district survived at all. It was a fundamentally hostile environment. Ken and Mary helped move us in the direction of openness and honesty."

Richard Scott, who served on the governing board for nearly 24 years and was replaced in the recall, said the dissention and hostility were not necessarily the fault of the former board.

"We didn't have (contentious) meetings before some people got elected, so there might be different opinions as to who caused (meetings) to be that way," Scott said. "None of us (Scott, Houston, Woodard) were trying to get the government to classify the (pygmy) owl as an endangered species (and) we weren't invested in no growth."

Indeed, AEA president John Lewandowski said neither Smith nor Schuh were immune to being rude.

"There were times, in open meetings, that Ken Smith yelled at me," Lewandowski said. "I commend both Ken and Mary for opening up the budget more, but the fact is, even though we know they only have so much money, we would agree to something in negotiations and then the board would never implement it. One time I stood up and said that our people didn't realize what they were voting on. Ken yelled and said, 'What do you mean? Why aren't you explaining it to them?!' I just listened, said, 'Yes, sir,' and sat down.

"Personally, I work with Mary Schuh very well, but she showed a different side of herself in public at the meetings," he added. "During the six-week fight last year over the early retirement program, she sat up on the dais and read a novel during the meetings. She said she'd already made up her mind and acted like she wasn't interested in our input. I think she was an asset to the board overall, but the perception of her by association members was negative."

Barrabee said Smith was "prone to (get) upset on occasion" but "he had the best of intent with regard to being fair and considerate."

"I think some times Ken thought the union didn't appreciate what he was doing to be a good guy," Barrabee said. "When he would get upset, his becoming upset was a manifestation of disappointment and frustration. People are human on both sides of the issues, but what is important is that we move into the future with positive feelings … We shouldn't focus on moments that reflected rough spots on the road to where we've come."

Former AEA president Hank Rowe said Schuh's no-holds-barred personality made some teachers uncomfortable.

"Our main problem with Mary Schuh is that she's kind of a crass individual and you basically have to take her with a grain of salt," Rowe said. "There were times that she would make comments publicly attacking employees. No one appreciated that. It was disappointing to have her chastise me and Mr. Lewandowski in an open board meeting for wanting a budget committee, saying it is against state law. You can't have a standing committee, but you can have a committee for the sole purpose of setting up a budget for the next year (just as) she was on a temporary budget committee."

Overall, people interviewed said they believed the prior board and administration were so corrupt there was almost no way a change couldn't be for the better. Most agreed that the tenacity of Smith and Schuh before the recall election -- during Smith's first two years as a minority boardmember and when Schuh was on the temporary budget advisory committee -- was the perfect medicine for a very diseased district. Smith and Schuh point to a return to open call to the audience at board meetings, making the budget available to anyone who asks, trimming administrative expenses at Wetmore by not replacing three associate superintendents, aligning the curriculum with state requirements and eliminating board perks as positive effects of their service and no one disagrees.

Where disagreement arises is if the change continued after the recall.

"When Nancy and Ken were the board minority, they were open and there was a great deal of dialogue with the teachers," Rowe said. "But once the recall took place, very quickly, communication basically ended. There were many complaints (about the old board), but when push came to shove, process was followed and we worked things through with the board… I have to give him credit - Bob Smith called me up and we met on a Sunday morning over a concern about pay raises being retroactive. I hold a great deal of respect for him in that regard."

Shawn Volk, a Canyon Del Oro High School math teacher said the board is more open than in the past, but "openness may not have been the best idea, in my opinion, because things were said that shouldn't have been said by both sides and the dialogue got unprofessional."

"I think (Smith and Schuh) were given a job that was difficult because with the previous board," Volk said. "They had to make some tough budget choices. Ken Smith took us in the right direction, but I didn't like the way he did it. In the end it turned out to be where the teachers and Ken Smith didn't' see eye to eye… once (he) got the gavel in his hand, it was tough for us to relate with him."

Marc Sabb, also a teacher at CDO, said there were more positive changes than negative under Smith and Schuh, but "from my particular standpoint, they weren't deep enough."

"The old system of running the district was good old boys. You had to know somebody to get a job in the leadership in the district and it didn't seem to matter if you were skilled or adept - you'd get the job simply because you were around long enough and knew the right people," he said.

"Mary Schuh and Ken Smith -- actually, the whole new board -- made it clear that the old way of doing business wouldn't be tolerated," he continued. "But as a classroom teacher, what we were hoping for is that teachers themselves would have more of a voice in how the district is run. That (the board) would solicit a number of opinions from a number of school sites from actual classroom teachers and that hasn't happened."

Mesa Verde's Ball credits Smith and Schuh with restoring integrity to Amphi, but understands teachers' complaints.

"They were very involved in making sure the district (was) back on the right track," she said. "And I understand the budget constraints the district is under, however, we are underpaid and that is an issue that is very real. It was nice, however, to go to board meetings and see that even though board members didn't always agree, they handled themselves and discussed issues in a professional manner."

Former boardmember Richard Scott said he thought "the district was a lot better off" during his service.

"I certainly read some of the comments in the EXPLORER, and if there were many more sins (people) could attribute to the previous board, I don't know what they could be. I served the community faithfully and well for a long time. We had a lot of good programs and a lot of successful students and we were responsible for the high school that was built. I think it is about time that some in the district got over (the past)."

Woodard agreed.

"There were a lot of accusations made, but there was never any substance to them," Woodard said. "A lot of accusations got covered by the paper, but the fact that there was no substance behind them didn't get that much coverage. Board meetings were acrimonious over the issue of the location and construction of the high school. But it was an attempt by a certain few to try to discredit the board and the district at one time (by people) who didn't want the high school built where it was built."

As for the accusations of the old board being one of "good-old-boys," Scott referred to it as a "family" atmosphere.

"The district had a culture back then, it was a family, a community. That improved the performance and the outcomes that were achieved because of loyalty," he said. "At the same time - who do you hire? You hire (people) based on what you know about them. Judging talent is subjective. While you might try to provide equal opportunity … at the same time, what if you have several qualified candidates? You'll go with the one you know. Does that mean it is an old boy network? I don't think so, I think that is reality."

Young Wright credits Smith and Schuh with "restoring fiscal integrity of the district and public confidence in Amphi schools."

"They didn't spare anything for us - they gave us all their time, their energy and even their health a couple of times, I'd venture to say," Young Wright said. "We had procurement issues under the tenure of the former people, we had no freedom of speech, we had the lowest paid teachers in Pima County. We had too many administrators and those upper administrators had cell phones, gas cards, take-home cars. We were totally out of control. They helped us stop all that. People continue to maintain it was a growth/no-growth issue. I don't think anyone would call Mary Schuh no-growth by any stretch. They were completely selfless. Ken and Mary came onto the board and opened the drapes, draining the swamps in Amphi, letting light into dark corners. We needed it."

© 2014 The Explorer. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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