Dr. Sánchez testifies about desegregation audit proposal

Dr. H.T. Sánchez, superintendent of Tucson Unified School District, told the state Appropriations Committee hearing an amendment to Senate Bill 1120 late Wednesday night that a proposed forensic audit of desegregation spending would hinder the district's efforts to reach unitary status and end the desegregation lawsuit that was leveled on TUSD in the 1970s.

Dr. Sánchez said he had no concern about what a forensic audit would find because spending is already closely monitored. He noted that budgets and spending are routinely reviewed by a court-ordered Special Master, the Fisher plaintiffs, the Mendoza plaintiffs, an outside budget operations expert, the Department of Justice and a federal judge.

"My intention is to get out of the desegregation court case," he said. "I'd sure like for the second largest school district in the state of Arizona to be under the purview of its locally elected governing board and the elected state officials that sit in this House and sit in the Senate, and that would make a heck of a lot more sense for us to be in the same situation as others."

He read from a letter submitted by Dr. William Hawley, the court-appointed special master who oversees the districts Unitary Status Plan. Dr. Hawley described the intense scrutiny the desegregation already undergoes.

It was not clear whether the bill's sponsor, Rep. Mark Finchem from Oro Valley, was aware of these levels of audits or that the desegregation budget is posted on the district's website, as required by the Unitary Status Plan.

When asked whether Rep. Finchem had contacted Dr. Sánchez before proposing the amendment, Dr. Sánchez said efforts to speak with Finchem were not successful.

"Yesterday when I found out about this, because arrived on my desk a little late, I made a phone call to Rep. Finchem's office and asked if I could speak to him and just kind of understand what he was needing," Dr. Sánchez said. "I was told by people in his office that he would call me between 5 and 5:30. I gave him my personal cell phone number and my office number, and I waited, and I never got a call back. So I didn't have any clarity on any of this until I'm sitting here listening to what's going on today."

After more than hour of testimony for and against the bill, the Appropriations Committee decided not to move the bill forward, which likely means it is dead for this legislative session.

Members of the committee cited concerns about the "bang for buck" that the audit could provide. A forensic audit examines every transaction rather than a sampling, which is used in a typical audit. The auditor general's office estimated such an audit would take about six months and cost $500,000 for each district.

With the audits that are already scheduled or taking place, legislators questioned what another level of scrutiny would reveal.

Committee members also questioned the amendment's provision that desegregation dollars be used to foot the bill for the audit. It was unclear whether that would be an approved and legal way to spend those dollars—let alone an effective use of funds meant to help children who need the most support.

Rep. Lela Alston expressed concern that the bill amounted to a "witch hunt" of TUSD and Phoenix Union, the other district that would be affected by the legislation.