Recall drive now official

By Jonathan Cooper

Residents upset with a recent programming decision by the Kyrene School District Governing Board have taken the first formal step to recall Board President Rae Waters.

The group’s action, filing legal documents with the Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools, officially starts the clock running on a planned district-wide petition drive.

In its filing, the group charges that Waters "has failed to fulfill her sworn obligation to protect and enhance the quality of education for children in the Kyrene School District. She has demonstrated that she is not fit to hold office by her approval of damaging and experimental school programming changes without objective research data and her refusal, as Board President, to respond to legitimate inquiries requiring further investigation."

Specifically, the parents are upset over a 3-2 vote at the March 8 Governing Board meeting that restructured the school day for middle-school students.

Starting next year, students will attend school for five periods of 68 minutes each instead of the current structure of eight 45-minute periods.

According to district officials, the new five-period schedule will include core subjects along with several variations of electives. It is these electives that have become a focal point of opposition by the recall group.

Under the newly approved schedule, students may select from two groupings of electives.

Group A electives include band, chorus, orchestra, physical education and Spanish.

Group B electives include art, family and consumer science, theater and computer media.

How the classes are offered throughout the year depends on which of three scheduling options a student selects.

In option one, students can elect a schedule for the entire year by which they pick two of the Group A electives and none from Group B. Classes in this option meet every other day, alternating from two to three days each week to provide an approximately equal number of sessions throughout the school year.

In option two, students select one Group A elective for a full year, plus two from Group B. The two Group B classes would be divided into two semesters.

Option three enables the student to select from the Group B list only, with all four classes spread out throughout the year at the rate of two per semester.

While complex, the approach was backed by a majority of the board as a way to continue offering popular electives within increasing budget constraints.

Parent opposition

After unsuccessfully lobbying the Governing Board to vote down the changes, a group of parents organized as Kyrene Community Leadership and set in motion a campaign to remove from office the board members who supported it, beginning with Waters. Member Sue Knudson is not yet eligible for a recall and John Doney is moving out of state and will soon resign.

"We have exhausted all our alternatives," said McKell Keeney, a Kyrene Middle School parent and member of the Kyrene Parents Cooperative, a group which supports Kyrene Community Leadership's recall effort. "Nothing's going to change for next year. They're going ahead with the plan."

Parents charge that the Governing Board did not "act in the will of the people" or adequately respond to concerns that were brought before the board at public meetings, which would violate a Kyrene policy, according to an informational leaflet handed out at a May 3 KCL training session for petitioners.

"Not all parents disagreed with the plan," Waters countered. "The will of the people is the responsibility of the board as a whole…board members are not supposed to bow to the interests of special-interest groups.

“We're supposed to make independent judgments based on what we've heard. And if a 3-2 vote isn't showing the will of the people, I don't know what is."

Parents also say the plan is not based on solid research, calling it "experimental school programming changes," a charge which Waters vigorously denies.

"The district has the research," she said, adding that approximately 13 books and other documents were provided to the KPC.

"We also have our district research, which is Kyrene specific, and our test scores. We took the research that's available, put it together with what we know about our district and what we know about the (state requirements), and that's how the recommendations came forward."

In order to reach the requirements of a recall election, the KCL, with the help of the KPC, must gather more than 7,000 valid signatures within 120 days. Keeney said the group's goal is to collect 10,000 to 12,000 total signatures to ensure the customary cushion for invalid signatures.

Waters contends, however, that a recall election would cost upwards of $100,000.

"The district would have to pay for that," she said. "If it's a school board election the district pays for it."

In its informational leaflet, which is available on its website, www.kyreneleadership.org, the KCL asserts:

"The cost of recovery from the issues that the current direction is causing will exceed the cost of the recall by a large margin, and if allowed to proceed will just get worse."

Still, Waters said she stands by her decision and that the recall attempt has not altered her decisions.

"I can't let threats change what I do when I know I'm doing the right thing," she said.

Disagreement still looms over what exactly is the "right thing," however.

"Some of the schools, we think, will probably not even have full bands and orchestras," Keeney said. "There's only a handful in each grade so it's basically crippling our music programs. That is my main opposition."

One young activist shares some of Keeney's concerns. He fears Kyrene students will be "ill-prepared when they go to high school" because of diminished time in fine arts classes.

"Basically, we'd be a cultural wasteland if we didn't have fine arts," said Justin Harvey, a junior at Corona del Sol who attended the KCL meeting.

"We'd be able to do math problems and that's it."

"I can certainly understand the passion around the arts and music," Waters said. "My son is in the band, my daughter's in chorus, so I certainly understand the passion that revolves around those, and I certainly support the arts.

“However, bottom line is, we just can't do it anymore. We can't afford to sustain that level of programming."