Saying an outside review is necessary, a House committee refused late on March 25 to require a “forensic audit” of the $64 million a year Tucson Unified School District is spending on desegregation expenses.
After more than an hour of testimony, Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, who chairs the Appropriations Committee, said he would not call for a vote on the proposal by Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley. Instead, Olson said those who testified for and against SB1120 provided “valuable information” about desegregation programs that will help lawmakers decide what action, if any, is appropriate.
But Olson’s decision essentially means the legislation is dead.
Finchem said committee members really didn’t hear the full story. While he stayed for the meeting, which started at 9 a.m. but then recessed until after 9 p.m., others who came to testify in support of the legislation did not.
“We now have voters who have, quite frankly, been disenfranchised from testifying,” he said, adding that he hopes to resurrect the measure. But that could prove difficult as there are no more committees set to meet this session.
By contrast, TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez, who argued against the special audit Finchem wanted, clearly was pleased.
But Sanchez said the committee’s decision not to take a closer look does not mean he is now free to change how the district spends its money. He said multiple layers of oversight remain.
Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, who also testified in opposition to the audit, was more blunt in his criticism of Finchem’s legislation, taking a swat at the freshman lawmaker for proposing the move in first place.
Farley, who has a child in the district, said Finchem represents no part of the Tucson Unified School District. And he said that Finchem never took the time to discuss the issue first with Sanchez, meet with district officials or review audits already done.
SB1120 was more of a demand than a request.
Finchem’s legislation was crafted so that if the district did not comply, the state would cut off its ability to levy a special tax that raises $64 million a year for the programs. And that, in turn, would have put the district at odds with a federal court monitoring its efforts.
The first-term lawmaker told the committee there is evidence the district has been misspending the money it is supposed to be using to comply with federal requirements to end a decades-old discrimination complaint.
As proof he cited the fact that the district, told to find a larger meeting space to accommodate more people, opted to remodel a school five miles away at a cost of $480,000. And those dollars, Finchem said, were paid for out of desegregation funds.
Finchem also he quoted from a statement by Gloria Copeland, an education activist who has been monitoring the desegregation program, questioning the expenditure of $3 million in desegregation dollars for a practice gymnasium.
Sanchez did not specifically ask lawmakers to kill the legislation. Instead he detailed for committee members all the oversight of how the funds are used that already exists, including a court-appointed special master, two sets of plaintiffs who sued the district and the U.S. Department of Justice.
“And a federal judge approves a final budget,’” Sanchez said.
The superintendent did not dispute the cost of the new board room. But he told lawmakers there’s more to the story than what Finchem said.
He said while the district was implementing its Mexican-American studies program there were people who wanted to go to board meetings but could not get in to the hearing room. And that site also did not provide translation services.
“So these folks filed a complaint with the (federal) Office of Civil Rights,” Sanchez explained. He said that agency told the district they could build a larger board room voluntarily.
“Or you could fight us on it and if we win you have to pay those legal costs and you still have to build a bigger governing board room,” Sanchez quoted OCR officials as saying. The superintendent said that information was relayed to the federal judge overseeing the desegregation case who gave the district permission to use the funds “to keep us out of more legal trouble with the federal government.”
Asked after the meeting about Finchem’s claim of $3 million for a practice gym, Sanchez said, “I don’t know what he’s talking about.”