Complaint: Arizona Students Were Told to Canvass

Courtney Williams's picture
Monday, October 31, 2011

The state attorney general has been asked to investigate allegations that Sunnyside High School athletes were told to report for a weekend practice, in uniform, then directed to pass out literature in support of the district's upcoming bond and override election.

On Oct. 17, the Pima County school superintendent's office received a complaint from an uncle of a Sunnyside High athlete alleging the students were required to attend a sports practice by their coach on Oct. 15.

"The student athletes were required to wear their official uniforms when they attended the practice at an off-campus field. The student athletes were provided with leaflets and flyers in favor of the override and bond elections by their coach(es). They were then to distribute the information in the local neighborhoods," the document says.

The uncle said that when his nephew was asked why he participated, the boy responded, "If coach says so, then you do it."

Sunnyside Unified School District is holding an $88 million bond measure and a 10 percent budget override vote Nov. 8. District officials and board members have said that if the bond and override elections fail, the district would face program cuts and layoffs.

Linda Arzoumanian, county school superintendent, turned the matter over to the state Attorney General's Office once the Pima County Attorney's Office advised of a potential conflict of interest in investigating the allegation. Amy Rezzonico, press secretary to Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Arzoumanian sent a letter to Sunnyside Superintendent Manuel L. Isquierdo informing him about the complaint. She cited the potential violation of state law: "An employee of a school district … who is acting as an agent of or working in an official capacity for the school district … may not give pupils written materials to influence the outcome of an election or advocate support for or opposition to pending or proposed legislation."

Students are allowed to distribute pamphlets about an election on their own time and under their own free will, but a district employee cannot give students materials at a school-sanctioned event and then tell students to go and distribute the materials, said Ricky Hernández, chief financial officer for Arzoumanian's office.

Isquierdo did not return calls seeking comment, but the district's assistant director for information technologies, Mary Veres, sent an email with letters Isquierdo wrote to district parents and to Arzoumanian in response to the complaint.

In his letter to Arzoumanian, he wrote that the district has received a similar call and had already started an investigation.

"Please know that we take this type of parent complaint very seriously and will make sure we have the necessary messaging going out to administration and staff," Isquierdo wrote.

But in his letter to parents, Isquierdo characterized the concern as being about student athletes who want to volunteer with the campaign.

"It is understandable that students might wish to show their support in the election initiatives as success or failure will directly affect them," he wrote to parents. "To ensure that any discussion of civic activities is very clear, we will communicate in writing and orally with coaching staff about volunteer participation of student athletes."

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