Nov. 10, 2004 - Controversy continued to linger the week after the Nov. 2 Marana Unified School District governing board election. Two of the three incumbents lost their bids for re-election, and the board president is now challenging a winner's eligibility to serve on the governing board.

Only board member Dan Post won re-election. He admitted being surprised by the outcome of the election, and said he did not expect to receive so many votes. He had the second most of the six candidates.

"Well, I think there was a certain sentiment for change," Post said. "But I think I was elected because people wanted stability and a connection with the history of the board."

Challengers Pat Teager and Maribel Lopez secured the remaining two seats on the board, with Teager receiving more votes than any other candidate.

Board President Janice Mitich and board member Debbie Schmich both sought re-election and lost. They will serve on the board for the remainder of the year, and Teager and Lopez should then take their place in January.

The challengers were backed by the group Take Back Our School District, which set out to replace the existing board members following the resignation of the widely popular Superintendent Rick Lesko. The group endorsed three candidates: Teager, Lopez and Mel Kaster. Kaster received the fewest votes of all six candidates.

The vacancy left by former board member Sandi Nielson also will be filled based on results of the Nov. 2 election. Voters chose from six write-in candidates and, beginning in January, the winner will serve the remaining two years of Nielson's term. Brad Nelson, Pima County elections director, said the results of that election would not be official until Nov. 16, when the election is canvassed.

Mitich expressed concerns about the direction of the district if the write-in candidate supported by Take Back Our School District, Albert Siqueiros, also wins a seat on the board, which would give the group a majority of votes on the board.

She said many district employees she's spoken with would quit if that occurred, though she would not name any of them specifically.

Mitich said she was disappointed by the way the opposing group reacted against the incumbent board members.

"Our opposition was able to make all kinds of accusations against us, and not once were they able to verify them," Mitich said. "We were getting blamed for doing our job."

Mitich also is challenging Lopez's eligibility to serve on the governing board. She said Lopez might not have been a resident of district boundaries for a year prior to the election as required by state law.

According to the Pima County Assessor's Web site, Lopez purchased a house in Continental Ranch in Marana at the end of May and her daughter began attending an MUSD school at the beginning of the school year, Lopez said.

In a fax sent from Mitich, she based her argument on an article that appeared in the Northwest EXPLORER. The article states that Lopez and her daughter moved into district boundaries at the beginning of the summer and Lopez decided to run for governing board because she wanted to stay involved in her child's education. Lopez later clarified that she moved into her parents' home, which is within district boundaries, a year-and-a-half ago after she divorced her husband.

Chief Deputy County School Superintendent Scott Little said challenges to a board candidate's residency usually come before the results of the election are known.

"I've never seen a challenge at this stage," Little said. "Historically challenges occur at an earlier stage. In 16 years, I've never seen a challenge at this point in an election."

He added that it's difficult to prove that an individual was not a resident of a particular district, because there is no statutory definition of a resident. Little also said the burden of proof lies with the person challenging the candidate's eligibility to show the candidate did not live within district boundaries.

Also, challenges to eligibility lie outside the control of the county superintendent and must be settled in Superior Court, he said.

It remains to be seen whether Mitich will challenge Lopez's eligibility in court.

Little added that, if Lopez is found to be ineligible, the opening would be treated as a regular vacancy, which means the person who got the next most votes, in this case Schmich, would not necessarily retain her position on the board. He said those who would challenge Lopez's eligibility to serve on the board would be doing so only to get her removed from the board.

Little also said it's possible the results of the election might change as provisional ballots continue to be counted. Regardless, Little said challenging a candidate's residency is a difficult undertaking.

In her fax, Mitich wrote, "I am compelled to contest this election because it is the right thing to do. I care about the law and our community. Ms. Lopez has violated the law. My primary concern is for the best interest of the Marana Unified School District.

"Declaring Ms. Lopez will not put me back on the Marana Unified School District. I do not know how Linda Arzoumanian, Pima County Superintendent of Schools, would proceed with filling this vacancy."

Lopez said she was disappointed that questions had emerged about her eligibility to serve on the board, especially because she grew up in the district and attended Marana schools as a child. She said she approached Interim Superintendent Jane Pryne at the end of October and assured her she was eligible to serve on the board.

"I think it's been taken way out of context," she said.

Lopez said she was satisfied with the outcome of the election although the challengers' goal was to win three seats on the board.

"I think we're excited and we're ready to get in there and do some good for the district," Lopez said. She said she and Teager would be fully willing to work with the remaining board members.

"We talked about what would happen if not all of us were voted onto the board, but we (Teager and Lopez) know we're both team players," Lopez said.

Post said he had "mixed feelings" about the outcome of the election, but that the incumbent board members, himself and Bill Kuhn, would have no problems working with the new board members, so long as all board members do what is best for MUSD students and can set aside their personal differences.

"If they're there for the best interest of the schools and the children then we'll get along fine," Post said.

He said the current board's success was in a large part from board members ability to set aside their differences and work toward goals that benefit the district. He said the new board members could bring fresh ideas and new contributions to the district.

The fourth candidate selected by MUSD voters could have a substantial impact because the person the board selects as its president has substantial influence, Post said. The president's ability to accept input from all board members increases the effectiveness of the board, he said. He drew from his own experience as board president to illustrate this point.

Post said his only concern about the new board members is that they may decide to vote as a group instead of following their own ideas about the best course for the district.

"They may feel that they have to be a voting block, as a board that would be my only concern," he said.

He added that Mitich might have lost her position because, as board president, she was at the forefront of the controversy surrounding the Lesko resignation. Mitich still has no regrets about the board's decision, and said any board working with Lesko would have taken the same action. Post reiterated that point.

Mitich said the candidates who were elected onto the board might find their job more difficult than they expected. She said the teachers' union supported her when she ran for the board; but when she won a seat, she needed to consider the needs of all facets of the district. At times, this put her at odds with some teachers, she said. The incoming board members will likely face the same issue as they begin to run the district, Mitich said. They might have to make decisions that would put them at odds with their supporters, who then might "turn their back on them," Mitich said.

Lopez said she and Teager would work hard to balance the needs of everyone in the district.

Teager was out of town and could not be reached by the Northwest EXPLORER as of press time. Schmich did not return phone calls seeking comment about the outcome of the board election.

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