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State panel hears case against former Pathway principal's certification

PHOENIX — A state education committee heard almost eight hours of testimony to determine whether a former Sequoia Pathway Academy principal will face disciplinary action against his certification over allegations of misconduct while at the Maricopa school.

The Arizona Board of Education’s Professional Practices Advisory Committee convened Wednesday to decide whether Alfonso Alva, currently an administrator at Pathway’s parent company Edkey, should have his certification revoked, suspended or renewed based on the testimony. The committee’s recommendation is then sent to the Board of Education for a final decision.

The testimony was expansive, covering much of what was included in an investigation by PinalCentral published in November of complaints filed with Edkey and then with the state board that governs charter schools. Following that article, the case was brought to the state board. The hearing was supposed to be over in a day but had to be cut off due to time constraints until a later date.

Kim Anderson, an assistant attorney general representing the state, and members of the committee repeatedly questioned the integrity of the investigation conducted by Edkey’s human resources department. Alva’s attorneys, Debora Verdier and Ian King, in turn questioned the relationships between the complainants to paint a picture of “us versus them” between them and Edkey that created a “cesspool of adult convenience” that Alva needed to clean up.

Meanwhile, two former teachers and a former student all shared their experiences with Alva allegedly making inappropriate and at times harassing comments about their personal lives as the state made its case for much of the day. The defense was only able to call one witness before the hearing was adjourned, and he argued it was the complainants, and not Alva, who were dangers to the school.

Testimonies of misconduct

Former Pathway English teacher and soccer coach Juan Garavito testified about an end-of-the-year party — one that was of much interest during the hearing — held at his house in May 2018 in which attendees were invited to swim in the pool. Garavito said Alva had multiple conversations with him about fellow English teacher Trecia Koozer’s swimsuit. In separate conversations, Garavito said Alva had talked about Koozer’s shorts.

“I’ve gone through numerous amounts of sexual harassment training in my career, and to me it’s common sense that you don’t have those kinds of conversations, especially in the workplace,” Garavito said.

In her testimony, Koozer later said Alva had also mentioned the swimsuit to her, asking if she would be wearing a “Mormon” one that goes down to the knees, or a bikini. Just before the party, she said Alva texted her to say he got a new swimsuit and asked her if she wanted a picture of him wearing it, and whether she would send him a picture of hers. She said she deleted those text messages because she didn’t want her children seeing them.

In an attempt to label Garavito’s statement that Alva was “always” making inappropriate comments as an “exaggeration,” Verdier argued that Garavito only cited four occasions of inappropriate comments. Garavito said he does not feel that is an exaggeration.

In another situation, Garavito said a student had approached him about something that had happened at home. Realizing where the conversation was going, Garavito decided to take the student to administration, which included Alva. He said he was later stopped and brought to Alva’s office and, without asking, told “a lot more than I needed to know” about the student’s parents’ sex lives. He said there was no educational purpose to sharing that information.

Koozer testified that one day at school, Alva was sitting with a group of male students during lunch. She walked by the group and recalled Alva calling out that she looked good in her jeans and that she looked like a teenager.

“Uncomfortable doesn’t come close to describing it. Sick to my stomach, maybe,” she said when asked how she felt after that. “These are boys I have in my class. These are young boys, and this does not hit my radar as something grown men should be saying to young boys. I remember thinking, ‘Really, we’re going to teach these boys how to catcall their teachers?’”

A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Koozer talked about belief in the church that drinks such as coffee should not be consumed. She said Alva would see her drinking coffee on occasion and “continuously” bring this up during the fall of 2018 just before he was removed from campus, and it made her uncomfortable.

“It was almost as if embarrassing me on a daily basis was what he woke up to do,” Koozer said. “There was a never-ending line of questions over what I was drinking and whether I should drink it, and whether he should contact my religious leaders.”

Verdier later tied Koozer drinking coffee to Koozer’s claim that she is a “rule follower,” asking if that label only applies to her time at work, and not with her religion.

So when multiple students came forward with stories of misconduct by Alva, Koozer said she believed them because she had been treated the same way. That’s when she said the complaints started being made toward Edkey, then to the State Board for Charter Schools. Hearing all those stories together, she said, opened a “Pandora’s box” that gave them the courage to move forward.

“(The students are) already at the point in their lives where they’re trying to figure things out. Here you’ve got a campus full of staff trying to build these students up, and then you have the campus director causing problems,” she said. “I felt no matter how hard I worked helping those girls feel strong in themselves, it would be undone and undermined.”

One of those students, Class of 2019 graduate Paris Jones, testified in front of the committee about her experience that she previously detailed to PinalCentral. She talked about the many occasions Alva would comment on her relationship with a baseball player and how he had seen the boyfriend hanging out with prettier girls than her.

“I didn’t understand why he said those things. I listened to him because he was our leader and I thought he might be giving me advice in a fatherly way,” Jones said. Later in her testimony, she said, “Principals have no place to talk to children about the clothes they are wearing, unless they are breaking the dress code, or about their relationships.”

Then there were issues she heard from people she knew. Jones said she was present when Alva asked one of her friends, “Why are you wearing such tight clothes? Who are you trying to impress?”

After more people started coming forward with their own stories about Alva’s conduct, Jones said she realized she wasn’t overthinking the situation, that his behavior was inappropriate, and that she needed to use her voice to make sure it stopped. So she reached out to Edkey Human Resources Director Laurie Ainge about her experience.

In his cross-examination, King asked Jones whether she was labeled a “drama queen” in high school and whether she had violated the dress code. When asked by the board about this line of questioning, King said he was addressing her “credibility.” An objection was made to that point.

Edkey leader testifies

Edkey CEO Mark Plitzuweit, the defense’s first witness, said Alva was hired as Sequoia Pathway’s campus director to turn things around at the campus, particularly with the athletic department. He said in the first year, the benchmarks immediately started going up, and the school went from a low C to a high C, then to a B.

Plitzuweit said he coined the term “cesspool of adult convenience” for Pathway before Alva came to campus. He said there was a “buddy system” where everyone would just protect each other and not consider themselves Edkey employees, but Sequoia Pathway employees. He said items would go missing on campus and there was improper use of funds, and any involvement from Edkey would be resisted.

“There was a lot of doing things and then later asking for forgiveness,” he said. “Or they wouldn’t tell us at all until we found out.”

Alva was promoted to assistant superintendent of operations at Edkey in the summer of 2018 but remained at the Pathway campus because he had moved to Maricopa. Since being removed from the campus following the complaint after fall break in 2018, he has been stationed at Edkey headquarters in Mesa on the Horne campus.

“The group that brought these complaints forward would stop at nothing to undermine Edkey,” Plitzuweit said. “They have gone after my predecessor, they have gone against every single assistant superintendent that would come to that campus. They’ve tried to smear their names, tried to get them fired. It was the right thing to do to get him off that campus.”

However, later in the testimony, Plitzuweit said Alva’s successor as assistant superintendent did not receive such treatment.

Plitzuweit said as assistant superintendent, Alva has worked to develop principals and other administrators, and the proof of his abilities is in how much improvement can be seen at those schools. He said he had never heard Alva make an inappropriate comment, including in after-hour social settings. He said if Alva had committed the acts alleged by the complaints, Alva would no longer be working at Edkey.

When pressed by Anderson, Plitzuweit said comments about religion, weight, clothing and students’ relationships would all be inappropriate if they occurred, but he said he did not believe any inappropriate conduct took place.

After it became clear the hearing would not be able to be completed that day, the committee adjourned, with Ainge and Alva set to testify at a later date that still needs to be set.

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Maricopa professional cornhole player appears on ESPN, grows game in area

MARICOPA — For many people, the game of cornhole is just a leisurely activity to partake in with some friends in a backyard. They might not even know the actual name, just calling it the “bean bag toss.”

That’s how Maricopa resident Ty Lopez felt just a few years ago as well. He had been playing cornhole for years in his backyard and liked it well enough as a hobby. A participant in competitive softball leagues, the underhand throw was already a strength for Lopez, so cornhole came naturally.

Then about three years ago, Lopez and his brother-in-law discovered a small tournament and joined on a whim. Despite that being their first competitive cornhole event, they came out with $500 in winnings.

The beginner’s luck just made them want to compete more, so they joined more events. It turned out the competition was much tougher than they had initially experienced, and they lost pretty bad in the bigger tournaments. However, Lopez persevered and improved his game so much that he was able to compete regularly as a signed professional in the American Cornhole League.

“I couldn’t imagine us going out of state to play it,” Lopez said. “Now I’m going out five or six times a year playing this darn little game.”

A big career highlight occurred in late May when he won an invitational in Las Vegas — the first national event since COVID-19 shut down league competitions — and was then able to compete in the finals televised on ESPN. To get there, he had to play for 10 hours on a Saturday, from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. to make the televised portion the very next morning.

At that level, it takes perfection to come out on top. He said the top players are regularly getting the bag in the hole 20 or 30 times in a row. Lopez did well for himself but was knocked out by the eventual champion.

“Everyone I’ve seen playing on there, they say it feels different and you’ve gotta deal with the nerves,” he said. “I kind of felt that, but I was able to try to block them out.”

Lopez said when he joined the competitive circuit he was surprised at how much strategy was involved. Top players are able to block the hole with their own bags, forcing the other team to either move that bag with theirs — and risk pushing it into the hole — or land their own bag directly in the hole on the toss.

Because of new social distancing rules, players are only allowed to go up one at a time and use their own bags, which has affected some players who like to get into a rhythm by playing fast.

Lopez’s next scheduled cornhole event will be an invitational open to professionals only on July 4 in Philadelphia. The finals of that event will also be on ESPN, and Lopez will have to again go through eight hours of play to qualify.

Since moving to Maricopa a couple years ago, Lopez has been all about cornhole. He even started his own company called Shot Kings Cornhole Apparel. However, there wasn’t any sort of infrastructure in the city for the game, so he took things into his own hands.

He started by organizing a few weekday “blind draws” where people are randomly paired with a partner. But then he wanted to grow the game, so he started a camp for kids called Kingdom Kids. So far, the camp has had two seasons in the Cotton Lanes Bowling parking lot in Casa Grande, with participation growing from 10 in the first season to 14 in the second.

At the camp, Lopez brings his professional friends from the Valley to speak to the kids and teach them the basics. As a parent himself, he wanted to get these kids the experience, and to help others in the area enjoy the game the way he has. The camp has had to be suspended due to COVID-19, but he’s hoping to get it restarted as soon as he can.

Lopez said he gets a lot of weird looks when he tells people he’s a competitive cornhole player, but through things like his camp he hopes people will see the game as not just something to do casually, but something that can require a lot of skill.

“A lot of people liked (the camp),” he said. “If you like to compete, I think it’s still fun and casual, but it gives you something to work toward.”

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Maricopa council candidates to speak on issues at virtual forum

MARICOPA — Adjusting to unique circumstances, the Maricopa Monitor and the Rotary Club of Maricopa will be hosting a virtual Maricopa City Council political forum this week in order to give candidates a chance to reach voters in one place.

The candidates who choose to attend Thursday’s forum will be at the Maricopa Unified School District board room, where they will be separated for social distancing. There will be no audience, but the Maricopa Monitor and Copa TV will be streaming the forum live on Facebook.

The moderator will asking Mayor Christian Price — who is running unopposed — and the council candidates a series of questions they can all respond to. There will be predetermined questions, but those watching on the Maricopa Monitor Facebook page can ask their own questions in the comments for a chance to have them asked in the forum.

There are six candidates running for three City Council seats: Linette Caroselli, Nancy Smith, Amber Liermann, Bob Marsh, Andre LaFond and Julia Gusse. Any one of them who reaches the state-formulated majority of votes in the Aug. 4 primary will automatically win a seat on the council. Should only two or fewer seats be claimed in this fashion, the top two candidates per remaining seat will then move on to the Nov. 3 general election.

Price, Smith and Gusse are incumbents. Marvin Brown is not seeking reelection, so his seat will be open.

The forum will begin at 6 p.m. on Thursday.

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MUSD board OKs budget with tax increase

MARICOPA — Maricopa Unified School District board members unanimously approved the Fiscal Year 2020-21 proposed budget on June 10 for submission to the Arizona Department of Education.

The finalized budget for maintenance and operations is $57,717,523, compared to FY 2019-20 at $52,349,665. The board approved a 6% increase in teacher wages earlier in the year, jumping from an average annual salary of $50,376 to $53,200 for the coming school year.

Under the budget, the primary tax rate will go up from $4.24 per $100 net assessed valuation to $5.22 while the secondary rate decreases slightly from $2.55 to $2.53.

MUSD also reported a weighted student count of a little over 10,000 students anticipated for the fall semester.

MUSD Business Director Jacob Harmon presented the board with the final findings and addressed any questions the board had. He stated that the last portion of the budget left to decide was the adjacent ways section.

“The big piece of this will cover adjacent ways (funding),” Harmon said. “It is used to account for special property tax assessments used for constructing, maintaining or otherwise improving any public way adjacent to any parcel of land owned by the school district.”

This would allow for funding of road construction surrounding the proposed new high school near Farrell and Murphy roads and was left until last as the board is still deliberating on aspects of the school.

With federal funds and unrestricted capital factored in, the budget becomes to $69,860,704.