There are only six days left. For what, a holiday or special sale? No, what remains is the number of days before results of the Clifton School Board recall election are known.
At stake in the March 11 election are the two School Board seats currently occupied by Reynaldo Tavison and Adam Chacon. Tavison has two challengers, Betty Swesey and Ron Johnson. Chris Hancock is challenging Chacon.
The voting deadline is 7 p.m. on election day. The single polling site for the election is at the Clifton Train Depot. There are the alternatives of voting in person at the Greenlee County Recorder’s Office or voting by mail-in ballot and absentee ballot. In recent elections, a majority of votes cast have been via mail-in ballots. Those voting by mail are cautioned to mail their ballots by March 10 to ensure they are received in time to be counted by elections officials.
County Recorder Berta Manuz said her office had sent out 820 ballots by mail, and as of Friday afternoon, Feb. 29, there had been 329, or 40 percent, of ballots returned.
What fueled the recall was a huge property tax increase approved by Tavison and Chacon. The tax hike has in some cases resulted in increases of 100 percent to more than 200 percent for some property owners. The school board of a district with less than 125 students can raise property taxes without having to go through a public vote.
The board’s action increased the Clifton Schools budget from around $500,000 to nearly $1 million.
The board voted for the tax raise at a July 15, 2013, board meeting attended by an estimated 300 people, a majority of whom strongly voiced their opposition to the increase.
Verde Lee resident Tammy McWhinney spearheaded a recall drive and filed the necessary signed petitions Oct. 3. She had about twice the number of signatures required to set the recall rolling. Candidates challenging the sitting board members had to meet a Jan. 10 deadline to hand in their petitions to be included on the ballot.
What is also at stake in the March 11 election is the very strong possibility of the high school's being closed. Two of the three challengers, Swesey and Hancock, said at a Feb. 3 candidate forum sponsored by the Greenlee Democrats that they believe the most logical option is to close the high school and keep open the elementary school.
Johnson is taking a more cautious approach. He said if he is elected, he will first closely examine the overall situation at the school and then make a determination from there on whether to close the high school. He spoke positively about keeping the grade school open.
As of Monday, March 3, there were 38 students in the high school.
Chacon and Tavison remained firm in their stands that the tax increase was justified to not only keep the school open but also to improve its curriculum, hire qualified teachers and put the school on solid footing. Most, if not almost all, of instruction provided at the high school is based on computer use.
In a letter to the editor in the Feb. 19 Copper Era, Clifton IT Coordinator Mario Pedregon strongly contended that “untrue” and “false” information was being disseminated in The Copper Era and “misleading” information was being spread by word of mouth about the school’s status.
Clifton Supt. Jack Day echoed those assertions in a Feb. 26 guest column in which he referred to the school’s critics as those “who for selfish reasons want to portray the school in a bad light using incorrect information.”
He wrote, “They have literally just made up lies about the school because they want the school closed.
Day asserted the school is “running very effectively” and pointed to what he said is a sharp improvement in grades and students passing the state-mandated AIMS tests.
Verde Lee resident Tamara “Tammy” McWhinney, who led the recall effort by circulating petitions and gathering a sufficient number of signatures to set the recall into action, disputed Pedregon’s and Day’s contentions.
She said all information that she and others involved in the recall have disseminated comes from information provided to the public at School Board meetings, from Day himself or from the Arizona Department of Education’s Web site.
At the center of contention have been a reported high absentee rate among high school seniors, failure to pass the AIMS and only a small portion of seniors having taken and completed state-mandated English courses.
“All information those of us involved in the recall effort have passed along to the rest of the public has come from official sources,” McWhinney said. “What we have passed along is solidly documented and does not involve lies, false or misleading information.”
McWhinney said that as a longtime resident and property taxpayer of the Clifton School District, she takes exception to being referred to as “selfish.”
She repeated her comments made at the July 15 meeting. “A great many of us who live in the School District are retired and live on fixed incomes. This big tax increase really hurts a lot of us.”
A comment that certainly caught everyone’s attention at the July 15 meeting came from Clifton High School alumnus and longtime Trojan booster Espie Castaneda. She opined, “This budget increase is not justified for the projected number of (high school) students in the fall, which is just 46 students. I have always been Clifton Schools’ biggest booster. Not anymore.” She said she saw closing the school (at least the high school) as a viable option.
A common theme that emerged from the crowd at the July meeting is that there were not enough students in the school to justify the large tax increase.
Swesey, who is retired, is a former teachers’ aide and was front office secretary at Clifton High School. Hancock is a long-time employee of the Greenlee County attorney’s office.
Chacon works for Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, Inc., at its Morenci copper mine. Tavison’s employment status was unknown as of press time. Both have been on the board since January 2011. They were the only two to run for the board in 2010. As there were no opponents, the Greenlee County Board of supervisors postponed the election and the two automatically became board members.
Neither was there a candidate for the third seat. Robert Gomez, a former board member, was later appointed to fill the vacancy.
Retired educator Luis Montoya is now the third member of the current board. He was appointed to the position following the resignation of Gomez in late July 2013.
The recall, led by Clifton School District resident and property owner Tammy McWhinney, stems from a huge tax increase approved by Chacon and Tavison during a July 15, 2013, board meeting. The increase has for some property owners doubled and even tripled the amount of taxes they paid the previous year.
Gomez, the only board member who voted against the tax increase, resigned soon after that meeting. He later told The Copper Era he resigned in disgust over approval of the measure because of the major negative impact it would have on property owners in the Clifton school district. He cited what he felt would represent a heavy and undue burden on property owners, particularly the elderly.
Tavison and Chacon passed the tax hike despite strong protests from most of the standing-room-only crowd that packed the school cafeteria where the meeting was held.
The audience, originally estimated at 200-250, numbered closer to 300. One long-time Clifton resident commented that it was the largest and most vocal crowd he had seen anywhere in Clifton since the copper strike and flood of 1983-86.
The diverse crowd included Clifton and Loma Linda/Verde Lee home and business owners, parents of school-age children, former and current Clifton Schools staff members and several town and county officials, who were there only as observers. A vast majority of the crowd was made up of retirees or those approaching retirement.
Many audience members who spoke were elderly Clifton District homeowners who repeatedly hammered home the fact they live on fixed incomes. Some said that the proposed increase would force them to make a decision between whether to pay their taxes or buy medicine they critically need.
A common theme emerged from opinions expressed by the audience,: ‘Don’t multiply our property taxes to support a failing school district with an enrollment of about 45 students, grades K-12.’ (As of January 2014, the school has about 60 students in grades K-12.)
One angry audience member cried out, “This is what I worked all my life for? I’m barely making it as it is and now you throw this at us? And for what? There’s already a good school up the hill (in Morenci). I used to be a real strong Clifton Trojans supporter, but not no more. There ain’t nothin’ left to support.”
Clifton resident Aida Lopez, a retired registered nurse and former Clifton mayor, said she was “embarrassed” by the board’s intent to raise property taxes.
Clifton native and long-time Trojan booster Vera Irvin summarized what many in the audience seemed to be feeling: “I wouldn’t mind paying more in taxes if students were getting the education they need, but they’re not.”
Chacon and Tavison asserted that the tax increase was necessary to support the proposed budget increase of approximately 70 percent, from $503,143 in FY 2012-13 to almost $900,000 in the 2013-14 school year. Audience members were absolutely outraged that part of the proposed increase included a major salary increase for Supt. Jack Day.
Tavison asserted that the board had “cleaned up” the school district during the past two years and that “we’re on our way up.” That and other comments by Tavison were met with laughter and boos from the audience.
Some questioned why the tax increase was not being put to a public vote. The district’s business manager, Shannon Hilyer, indicated that the district is too small to receive state equalization funds, so the majority of the budget has to be funded with property taxes. She said that under ARS 15-949, a school with enrollment of fewer than 125 students can raise property taxes without passing an override voted on by the citizens of the district.
Clifton High School alumnus and long-time Trojan booster Espie Castaneda opined, “This budget increase is not justified for the projected number of students in the fall, which is just 46 students. I have always been Clifton Schools’ biggest booster. Not any more.” She said she sees closing the school - at least the high school - as a viable option.
(The most current available student count obtained in January 2014, shows a K-12 enrollment of 60. Of those, 38 are in grades 9-12. There are 10 seniors.)
In response to Castaneda’s comment, Clifton Board President Adam Chacon replied, “Everybody has a choice.” That provoked an outcry from the audience, asserting that they didn’t have a choice in paying their taxes. In regard to the small number of student enrollment projected for next year, Chacon asserted that if just one student is helped, the district is succeeding.
Tavison invited the audience to “come see us (at the Clifton Schools). This year we’ll have good teachers. The dynamics in the school are phenomenal.” He was again met with boos and jeers from the audience.
Tavison struck yet another nerve when he said the board was “elected to represent the students” and not the public. The comment sparked even more responses of outrage. Someone shouted, “Who do you think votes and pays the taxes to keep this school going? That’s us, not the kids!”
He begged the audience to “give us just two more years” to prove that the increase was warranted but the audience roundly booed this suggestion and responded with a chant of “recall, recall”.
Immediately after the meeting, many who had been in the audience gathered in groups in front of the cafeteria. The biggest question among them was “So what do we do now? Recall them?”
Also after the meeting ended, Gomez was thanked by many of the audience members. Several said, “Thank you and God bless you, Bobby, for standing up for us.”