It will be two-on-one and one-on-one for the March 11 Clifton School Board recall election. There are three challengers taking on the two sitting incumbents, who are the recall’s targets.
The incumbents, Reynaldo Chacon and Adam Chacon, will automatically be included on the ballot. The challengers are Betty Swesey and Ron Johnson, who will face Tavison, and Chris Hancock is going up against Adam Chacon, who is currently the board’s president.
The deadline for filing nomination papers to run for the board was at 5 p.m., Friday, Jan. 10. Greenlee County Elections Director Yvonne Pearson verified at the 5 p.m. deadline that Hancock, Johnson and Swesey were the only challengers to file.
Johnson is an assistant Greenlee County assessor. Swesey, who is retired, is a former teachers aide and was front office secretary at Clifton High School. Hancock is a longtime 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 longtime 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 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 longtime 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 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 longtime 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 anymore.” 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.”
Recall Election Day: Tuesday, March 11, 2014
Voter Registration Deadline: Monday, 5 p.m., Feb. 10, 2014.
Early Voting Begins: Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014
Last Day to Mail Early Ballots: Friday, Feb. 28, 2014
Last Day to Vote Early in Person: Friday, March 7, 2014
Only those who are registered to vote by the deadline and live within the Clifton Unified School District boundaries are eligible to vote in this election. For further information contact Greenlee County Elections at 928-865-2072.