Sunnyside board mired in conflict

2013-10-10T00:00:00Z 2014-04-04T18:18:06Z Sunnyside board mired in conflictBy Jamar Younger Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

On Tuesday, Sunnyside officials were hoping to address some issues that were reported in the media and had attracted scrutiny from some Governing Board members and the community.

But the meeting exploded into a series of outbursts, intense conversations and heated debates, further revealing the tension among Superintendent Manuel Isquierdo and board members Daniel Hernandez Jr. and Buck Crouch.

Most of the contentiousness centered around the district hiring the relatives of Governing Board members, Hernandez’s past claims of district corruption, and the district’s partnering with LegalShield, which is a prepaid legal services company that employs board member Bobby Garcia.

Sunnyside officials asked the Arizona Auditor General’s Office to investigate Hernandez’s corruption claims and to contact Hernandez directly, but the agency told district officials it wouldn’t get involved.

Hernandez said he didn’t intend to damage the school district’s reputation, but he refused to take back what he said or elaborate.

Isquierdo and other officials not only expressed their frustration with some of the board members, but also with the media, criticizing an Arizona Daily Star story about the district’s relationship with LegalShield.

The tension spilled into the audience, where a relative of Hernandez got into an argument with another woman, forcing district security guards to separate the two.

By time the Governing Board went into executive session, about three hours after the meeting began, there was talk about civility and a desire to move on, but the tension remained.

Nepotism complaints

For months, the community and some Sunnyside employees have complained of nepotism and favoritism regarding the hiring of some board members’ relatives.

The complaints, as well as reaction from the district, intensified last month after Hernandez accused the district of nepotism and corruption in a fundraising letter sent to supporters.

On Tuesday, attorney John Richardson presented a slide show and discussed laws regarding when a school district governing board member can vote on a prospective employee who is a relative.

He said it is not illegal for a governing board member to vote on a relative’s hiring, unless the relative is a spouse or dependent.

Isquierdo and Board President Louie Gonzales furthered defended the practice of hiring family members, saying the district takes pride in hiring family and Sunnyside graduates because it gives them an opportunity to give back to the community.

“I think there’s pride in hiring family. I think there’s pride in hiring graduates,” Isquierdo said.

Gonzales said only two board members, himself and Eva Carrillo Dong, have relatives who are currently employed by Sunnyside. Gonzales’ son is a teacher.

Hernandez said he still believes the practice represents preferential treatment, something with which he disagrees .

He also addressed the matter later in the meeting when he read the letter in response, standing by his claims while reminding everyone of his opposition to Isquierdo’s recent contract extension.

After minutes of back and forth discussion, Isquierdo dismissed Hernandez as a “young person who gets on the board, who doesn’t have an understanding of the complexities of this district.”

LegalShield agreement

The district’s involvement with LegalShield gained attention after initial questions from board members and the community, followed by an article in the Star.

Sunnyside entered into an agreement with the prepaid legal services company, which employs Garcia.

The agreement allows the employees pay the company a monthly fee through payroll deduction in return for access to a lawyer. The company is a multilevel marketing enterprise, where employees can recruit customers to work for the business.

During the LegalShield presentation, district officials spent most of the time reiterating the fact the service is legal, and Garcia is not making money off of its relationship with the district.

Isquierdo and Sunnyside Chief Financial Officer Hector Encinas criticized the newspaper article, claiming the reporter didn’t do his “homework.”

Encinas disagreed with a headline and other portions of the story, comparing it to tabloid journalism.

The Star stands behind the story and headline.

Later in the presentation, Crouch asked if LegalShield was indeed a multilevel marketing company, but Encinas couldn’t answer the question.

Garcia didn’t comment on LegalShield or anything else during the meeting.

Contact reporter Jamar Younger at jyounger@azstarnet.com or 573-4115. On Twitter: @JamarYounger

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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